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ARCHIVES for DECEMBER 2002
Weren't fascicles Mussolini's favourite dessert treat
I did a short summary of it for the Report in July, but now seems like a good time to revisit Oxford English Dictionary associate editor Peter Gilliver's article about "Tolkien and the OED". As a young philologist, Tolkien was an important contributor to the greatest of all dictionaries.
Some words, including walnut, walrus, and wampum, seem to have been assigned to Tolkien because of their particularly difficult etymologies. In the case of walrus, he wrote out many different versions of the etymology--six of which, remarkably, have survived in the archives thanks to Tolkien's habit of recycling discarded slips by turning them over and writing on the other side. In fact walnut, walrus, and wampum were among the few entries singled out by Henry Bradley when the fascicle W to Wash was published in 1921 as containing 'etymological facts or suggestions not given in other dictionaries.'
Goo goo g'joob.
Not gonna happen
I promise you that I will never take the arrogant view that certain matters absolutely demand comment from me. The psychic pressure of the categorical imperative is particularly strong just now, with webloggers striving to cobble together (1) lucid thoughts on the abominable/magnificent future of cloning and (2) "year-in-review" pieces to close out 2002.
I'm afraid all I really have to say that if I did have a clone, maybe he'd be well-organized enough to do a goddamn Year in Review.
Jesus. I'm gonna take some kind of thanatoptic view of the past year now, a day after the first weekend after Christmas? Sorry, my memory right now is a blur of turkey gravy and Mike's Hard Lemonade. I think I might have snorted model glue with a mall Santa somewhere in there, and I'm pretty sure I threatened to give someone "a dirty Sanchez for Christmas." If I could remember the details of the holiday, they'd become repressed memories almost immediately. And we haven't even crawled past Hogmanay yet. Let's just keep looking to the future, where all the mistakes are still waiting to be made.
I especially like panel six
Ruben Bolling has the last word on Trent Lott. (Yeah, you wish.)
What's bred in the Bono
I can't seriously challenge The Ambler's authority to discuss the legacy of Joe Strummer, or to ignite singularly gaseous NatPost editorials. If he isn't convinced that a large part of U2's hornbook was writ in the faux-demotic hand of Joe Strummer, I can't do the job. But there is no hope of agreeing to disagree about the Ambler's closing words:
The Rock 'n' Roll Mausoleum in Cleveland is the antithesis of everything the Clash stood for. I'd like to think that Joe Strummer would have shown it the contempt it deserves.
I'd like to think so, too, but, alas, the evidence is fairly clear. Strummer and his Clashmates intended to do what every other group interred in the Mausoleum does: reunite and play the old choons at half speed.
An underappreciated feature of our Germanic language is that we are free to ram nouns together, using the first in the pair attributively. We don't worry much about the ambiguities involved in an idiomatic formulation like "economy size" or "luxury car". Romance languages, haunted as they are by the ghost of noun-case niceties, have a certain psychological reluctance to do this. As a result--to take an example my friends and I often chuckle over--Cookie Monster has a six-word name in French Canada: he is Le monstre qui mange les biscuits, "The monster who eats cookies".
I spotted another, still more hilarious one this afternoon. In French, the title of the movie The Horse Whisperer positively explodes into a nine-word locution: L'homme qui murmurait à l'oreille des chevaux. "The man who whispered into the ears of horses."
Linking, not thinking
Some random scraps seen around the Net: Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat is still pretty funny after 113 years. The letters in the anthology No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again--a book of insane missives sent to the Mt. Wilson Observatory from 1915-35--are appearing online a few at a time. (Link via Wiley Wiggins, one of very few webloggers who was in the cast of Dazed and Confused.) The Deuce of Clubs website has a thing about the Mt. Wilson letters somewhere in its un-navigably abundant depths; let me know if you can find it. Exploring DoC at random is encouraged, but fun features include a guide to preventing bandwidth theft, the Herb Alpert Whipped Cream art car, and the Mojave Phone Booth.
Playing to type
Hanging out at Kevin Steel's place on Saturday night, I had the distinct pleasure of pounding away on a gorgeous old Smith-Corona manual typewriter he has restored. It's been--what? Fifteen years since I used a manual typewriter? I enjoyed seeing all the features I had forgotten about. Do young people even know why the "Shift" key is called that? A deeply satisfying physical shift, a jarring thump, is actually involved. And do they know that older persons once considered the presence of a "1" on the top row a wild luxury? (We used ta hafta use a lower-case "l", doncha know, kiddies.)
Then I was embarrassed to remember that when I first visited kindergarten as a child, I was fascinated to the point of obsession by a manual typewriter, probably a total piece of junk, that sat on a low table on the edge of the playroom. I remember thinking it was probably the kind of thing other kids would always want to use too, and that I'd never get any time with it. Then I remember being surprised, later, that this wasn't the case. By the age of eight my parents had kindly purchased me my own Smith-Corona and I had developed preternatural skills with it, sans training. I suspect, in fact, that my entire fate was determined by that one initial encounter with an elegant machine. Deep down I am really the person most deserving of Frank magazine's devastating epithet for hack writers--"typist". But maybe you already knew that.
Charles Paul Freund reports for Reason.com's Hit and Run:
The near-total flop in the U.S. of Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio this weekend is bad news in Italy. In fact, Italy's leading center-left paper, La Repubblica, plays the failure in terms of American rejection (il Pinocchio di Benigni snobbato negli Usa).
Freund, remarkably, is right about the article's hurt tone. It's a little baffling that Italy--Italy, for God's sake--should regard its cultural standing as being reliant on the success of Benigni and Benigni alone. Nonetheless it seems to be so. This suggests the real breadth of the difficulty in American attempts to placate paranoia about cultural imperialism. It is not without reason, to say the least, that the Italians have high expectations for their cultural exports. Hey, pasta and humanism were big hits, weren't they? You guys already know Pinocchio, and you let Benigni turn the Oscar ceremony into a shambles; so why the cold shoulder all of a sudden?
Why indeed. North American audiences can smell a vanity project fifty miles away, is why. Right or wrong, we are conditioned to regard the cinema as a gang of con artists out to fleece us. We assume that an artist who has a phenomenal worldwide surprise hit, like Life Is Beautiful, is going to abuse the newfound power. (If he casts his wife in a major role, that doesn't exactly assuage our fears either.) In a collaborative art form which takes money--architecture, theatre, film--everybody's got their true heart's desire sitting in the closet, waiting for them to acquire the clout and the time and the audience to unleash it on the world. Benigni's dream was to reclaim Pinocchio for Italy, make a distinctly Italian, definitive Pinocchio, and cement his reputation as the master clown of Europe. This is all very heroic, certainly, and for all I know the movie is fine entertainment; but most people are going to look real hard at the $10-$15 it will cost them to find out. Hmmmm. And they're gonna say "You know what? If I go see The Two Towers instead, I know I'll get my money's worth."
If Benigni had had the critics on board--"You MUST see Benigni's Pinocchio!"--it would have been a different story. Unfortunately the critics, when confronted with Life Is Beautiful, sort of went "Wait... a comedy about the Holocaust. Is this an OK thing? Do I have time to think this through? Shit, I'm on deadline here." (The challenges of reviewing the movie were symbolized in the New Yorker, wherein David Denby sort of double-clutched, having to plunge back in for another review the week after the first one ran.) It must have been collectively quite dismaying to see their two hours' work, apiece, propel Benigni to American stardom and the Oscar podium. They came forearmed this time.
Schism: the oldest Christian tradition
She brakes for nerds
(Via Fark) Seen on the Playboy web site:
Miss January [2003, Rebecca Ramos,] is an intoxicating cocktail--part lawyer, part businesswoman, all knockout. At 35, she's the oldest woman ever to become a Playmate, and she is proud to help shatter preconceptions about the women who pose for Playboy.
But wait! If Rebecca is the first 35-year-old to become a Playmate, then weren't the "preconceptions" accurate until now? Isn't this like saying that Jackie Robinson "shattered preconceptions" about the existence of a colour line in baseball??
The blockquoted text above, framed by a not-safe-for-work (but otherwise tame) photo of Miss January, can be found here. WARNING: Miss January's claim that she is attracted to men who are "cerebral, almost nerdy" may not be strictly accurate.
When doves cry
Via Anil Dash: in an .mp3 file, lowbrow auteur Kevin Smith discusses the ins and outs of shooting an impromptu documentary for Prince. I have no idea what the source is here, and I'm probably violating someone's intellectual property eight different ways. So what? Is Silent Bob going to come after my ass? Him and his crackhead pal are going to waylay me with some Rube Goldberg-esque scheme in a shopping mall? I can live with that kind of uncertainty. (Audio file is 25 minutes long or thereabouts, and contains sordid detail of Prince's unique mental outlook and shopping practices.)
Alberta now has, I believe, the highest cigarette tax on this continent: a pack of 25 smokes will run you $9.50 Canadian including tax, give or take. I thought I'd document a chilling rumour making the rounds--that the provincial government intends to raise the price to $15 at the beginning of the new year. That's the latest version, anyway. I began to hear "They're going up to $15, you know" from cabbies and clerks soon after the big price increase earlier this year. It was supposed to happen anytime. But now I'm hearing the tale more frequently, and like urban legends true and false it is gaining specificity as it circulates, with a date now attached. (And like other legends, the people who spread it are far more convinced of its truth than they would be of something they'd merely seen with their eyes.) We shall soon have a good test of the validity of Edmonton's proletarian "buzz".
Personally, I don't believe the government dares raise cigarettes to $15 a pack even in its dreams. The current price is calibrated so as to make smuggling (or wholly legal importation from Eastern Canada) only mildly tempting. If smokes go to $15, it will become positively irresistible. They can't afford the lost revenue and the increased costs of policing--even if our premier, that newly sober old soak, can afford to indulge in a little Puritan persecution of one vice he happens not to savour.
I was thinking, just now, that the best evidence for the existence of God is not the primum mobile or the Argument from Design, but the life of Dr. Laura Schlessinger. "Doctor" Laura... in the long-gone days when people were able to conduct themselves with continence and dignity, more or less as Dr. Laura is constantly urging them to, it would have been considered the pinnacle of gaucherie in North America to endow oneself with the epithet "Doctor" without possessing an M.D. degree. But it seems some people can't resist the tempting fruit of instant professional respect and trust; those whose continued existence relies on an unexamined assumption of their expertise scoop a Ph.D. and go through life with "Doctor" inseparably grafted onto their names. "Trust me: I'm a doctor." I don't think even his friends call David Suzuki "Dave"; his name has become one word, Doctordavidsuzuki. So too with Dr. Laura, who, by also dropping her last name, combines implied intimacy with authoritarianism. Her Ph.D. is in physiology, so unless she is hectoring you about the lobes of the liver, you may safely set aside the title.
Anyway, I regard Dr. Laura as a distasteful necessity, an artificial superego for the great mass of the dazed. I was raised in a fairly traditional home, by people for whom, thanks to geographical circumstance, the 1950s merged quietly with the 1980s without anyone getting freaky on the brown acid and running off to grow rutabagas on a commune in upstate New York. So if you're like me, and you weren't raised by wolves in human form, you know it's pure snobbery that makes us listen, aghast yet rapt, to the horror stories of people trying to rediscover the laws of appropriate conduct by sheer trial and error. Dr. Laura is just trying to save them from running into a few walls in their endless stupor. But she's chosen, of course, to drive home her message with a persona that combines the Great Santini with a rabid wombat.
I don't believe in God, but even I would say that it looks very much like Someone is trying to send her a message. "Hmmmm... having naked photos of you available to anyone with a Web browser didn't get you to change your tune. How about if we have your estranged mother murdered and left to the rats for months, Captain Family?"
This is a cruel joke, but the kernel of justice within it will, I think, be widely recognized. Some people dislike Dr. Laura for the advice she gives; oh, you wet blanket, let us live a little. Some people doubtless dislike her for daring to give advice at all. And we're all horrified (or amused, or both) by the style in which she gives it. But the facts are these: Dr. Laura mostly gives good advice; giving advice is a project which it is sometimes desirable to undertake; and the style can be chalked up to self-evidently successful showmanship. What I really resent about Dr. Laura is the tacit assumption that people should seek advice from a radio personality. Doesn't this make her a participant in the construction of a culture of helplessness? If you're confused, hurt, or angry, shouldn't you turn off your radio and seek out someone you know and trust? An older relative, a cleric, a mentor, a sensible friend? If there's nobody you know and trust except celebrities, you definitely have bigger problems than deciding whether it's OK for a Methodist to date a Hindu. Dr. Laura is not, as some would make her out to be, some kind of fascist; I suspect she may even have good human qualities which emerge when she's not busy fighting the tide of history. But her show can only exist in a society that has been prepared, to some degree, for fascism.
This post unwittingly sponsored by beer
Hey, Jim Henley got Kavalier and Clay for Christmas too. That's pretty funny. I'll ignore the fact that he mentioned the coincidence without actually linking to me. Why? Because I'm bigger than that, don't want to sink to his level, etc.
Notice, though, how when someone says "I don't want to sink to X's level" they immediately plunge far below it, in the mind of the observer. Damn! [UPDATE, December 28: He's added the link now. That's the Christmas spirit in action!]
I was reciting the full list of stuff I got for Christmas to somebody earlier today, and I realized--holy crap, I'm totally spoiled. My parents are still getting me the same n-hundred dollars' worth of stuff that they used to when I was 14. I suspect that once they have grandchildren they will transfer their budgeting to the lucky tykes, but when's that going to happen? My sister, who has lived with the same (very likeable) guy for six or seven years or whatever, reacts to the mention of "children" the way most people do to "cancer". I'm more child-friendly, possibly by virtue of not having to tote one around in my abdomen for nine months, but what am I going to do?--chloroform somebody? I think not (but get back to me when I round 35 or so).
The other day a cab driver told me "Your kid is always your kid." Even when you get old and you blend with your parents' generation into a seamless alliance against the newer, rising barbarians, you always remain the child. Hey, I'm in no hurry to be an adult. It seems to me that the post-boomer generation is screwed in so many ways, it might as well enjoy its one advantage: the most prolonged adolescence in the annals of humankind.
32 down, 18 to go
I'm just doing my periodic check-in on the Segway state of the union. There's been a lot of comment already on how you basically have to sign over your first-born child to get on the delivery list. (We're talking a 10% deposit, as well as mandatory attendance at a training seminar in one of a few U.S. cities.) But it's hard to have sympathy for anyone that desperate to be the First On Their Block. In return for their trouble, someday they'll be able to tell their grandclones about the first time they felt the sweet, sweet floating sensation of Segway, clumsy precursor to the genetically engineered BioWingLets everyone will be born with after 2055.
What would worry me, as a potential buyer, are the regulatory issues. At the moment, what we have, if I understand this page right, is a perfect tool for exploring nature--which you can't use legally in Hawaii; an hypermodern eco-friendly transporter for the granola crowd--which you can't use legally in Oregon; an ideal tool for getting around college campuses--which you can't use legally in Massachusetts; and a hallmark in the history of urban geography which, at the moment, is banned from city sidewalks in Chicago, New York City, and all of Texas. Of course, it's legal in California, if you install reflectors, a headlight (!), and a horn. Ahwooga! Make way for Segway!
"Legislative efforts," the Segway site says dryly, "continue." I just bet they do.
Retail wags the dog
Here's another one from Instantman dissecting the poormouthing of American retailers after the [switches to Simpsons Comic Book Guy voice] Worst... Christmas... Ever.
Sounds like some people are ready to ask the question I put on Dec. 8:
Would it be a negative thing if there weren't an outbreak of personal bankruptcies in January and February one of these years? Why must we all be personally committed to the retailer's view that Christmas spending must grow faster than inflation every year from now until the Last Judgment?
The question remains unanswered. The Washington Post splashed its "Worst Holiday in 30 Years" headline on the basis of a forecast 1.5% rise in retail sales over last year. Of course, the National Retail Federation remains more optimistic:
We're going to have a week of gift certificate redemptions, we're going to have some returns and exchanges and new purchases as retailers are busy clearing out merchandise. We just might squeak by with this 4 percent estimate after all.
Squeak by. With four percent. Hey, are you earning 4% more right now than you did this time last year?
[UPDATE, December 29: The meme spreads. Timothy Noah sounds off in Slate.]
All roads lead to Rome
...one thing I hear from people who've spent a lot of time in countries where there's a substantial Islamic population is that the Saudi money is there year in and year out. The U.S. may come in and do things for a few years, but we get distracted and our interest dries up. The Saudis' interest doesn't. They build mosques, they build schools, they provide a lot of medium-influential folks with a secure livelihood and some money to spread around that lets them build up local patronage webs of their own.
Glenn (via Patty Murray) has seized on one of the real reasons for the widespread perception of American perfidy... but of course one of the moral hazards of having a republic is that republican governments cannot bind their successors on foreign policy. Democracies, basically, cannot make promises, or do not very well, and non-democracies aren't very good at understanding this. Edward Luttwak, if I recall right, has written about this subject. I'm guessing Tocqueville mentioned it, too, because the rule that Tocqueville foresaw all American trends and recurring problems in utero hardly ever fails.
Anyway, if imperialism is the only "solution" to this implicit problem, the proposition should be put to the American people in that form. Maintaining a permanent American clientele in foreign states from a permanent, dedicated fund of American capital... well, that's one of those bright empire-vs.-republic lines of demarcation that is very hard to pass over in any direction but one. Americans will find, if they proceed, that endowing a clientele involves them in establishing oligarchy at first, and in the long term, government by favoured clan. In the 19th century the Europeans got very good at picking out the most ferocious ethnic or religious minority in a distant place, bending it to their purposes, and establishing its supremacy for the duration of its usefulness. When you retreat, a trail of terror, sometimes even genocide, is left behind: or did you perhaps think the Tutsis and the Hutu merely hated one another naturally, like cats and dogs?
The British didn't end up with an empire because they wanted to be badasses; they ended up with an empire, by and large, because a lot of well-meaning Brits thought it would be a good thing to extend the benefits of civilization to places lacking in them. Schools, certainly--and roads and sewers, that kind of thing. As for mosques--well, Americans certainly could build mosques in the Muslim world. I shall like very much to see the response of the American taxpayer if this idea ever comes to pass. It is just possible he may find it a bit hard to swallow that his children can't pray in domestic public schools, but his tax money can be used to erect minarets in places he hasn't heard of. But foreign gratitude would be the result, wouldn't it?
I wonder. Would you attend a church bought and paid for in your hometown by, say, the government of Communist China? Ah, but the Chinese have better sense than to try such things, don't they.
It is impossible to overestimate the amount of trouble that can arise from the best intentions of empire. And so ColbyCosh.com returns to the thematic itch that defies scratching: yes, Pontius Pilate is making another appearance. As governor of Judea, Pilate devised a wholly beneficial megaproject to immortalize the memory of the Emperor Tiberius: an aqueduct bearing fresh, clean water to Jerusalem. An unheard-of thing, this, one that would save many lives and alleviate the general condition of the poor. He erected it and very naturally figured that the locals should bear a small part of the cost, if only to symbolize their friendly partnership with Rome. Unfortunately, being unacquainted with, or skeptical of, the stringency of monotheism, he delved into a long-untouched fund of sacred money seized from the Temple by prior generations of Roman adventurers. The Jewish people, in a righteous rage, presented themselves in a body to protest. After all, you can't build a clean thing with besmirched cash. Pilate felt he could explain it all to them, send them home happy--happy and grateful to Rome. Of course things went pear-shaped very quickly, and under a shower of missiles and spittle he had to give the signal for a general massacre.
The long-term result, needless to say, was not gratitude.
Thanks to Andrea Harris for recent traffic. Hell, thanks to anyone for recent traffic. Thanks to anyone who mentioned "that Corby Cash guy" in a bar and might have been overheard. The Christmas season, with its gnarled logistics and crippling stresses, makes calm, aimless reflection impossible. You end up messing with DVDs and figuring out taxicab vectors and sleeping in until three p.m.: the usual open-ended, conversational weblogging is, simply, impossible.
Fortunately there is Old Business. I notice that Sarah Kelly wants me to "set the record straight" about her. I'd have thought anyone who knew me had heard the old maxim "Be careful what you wish for" often enough to have absorbed it. Apparently not. But that's all right, I'll set the record straight: Sarah is basically too amazing to even be human. You know she won the $10,000 Mactaggart Writing Award for undergraduates in 2001? Yeah, fine, it's $10,000 Canadian: that's still more money than I'm going to see from any one piece of writing until inflation and the Second Intergalactic War have us all using Microsoft™ Replicator Credits. And there's a caveat:
She fucking deserved it. Somehow, in a free-for-all undergraduate writing competition, she managed to win with a piece that had nothing to do with the Bosnian calamity or the tragedy of the Kurds or the subliminal terrorization of abortion-clinic employees; it was, simply, a funny, heartbreaking little essay about her first love. That's it. No more than about four thousand words or so, ones that could and would (and will if you ever read them) make you laugh and cry until you were wrung out like a washcloth. The judges, whoever they might have been, set aside political considerations and never once thought to ask "Is this the sort of person we want to win this thing?" (For an unfavourable comparison, consult a list of your local recent Rhodes Scholarship winners.) She just submitted the best piece, the best possible piece, and won. I told her many times over, during the production of the thing, that she would win if it was even half as good, all the way through, as stuff she had written before; but I was still thunderstruck at her victory because I won't allow myself to believe, deep down, that God is any respecter of sheer talent.
Did I mention that she is also gorgeous, quick-witted, and infinitely kind? I may have forgotten those parts. She also responds well to flattery, but some people make flattery easy, don't they. Unfortunately her victory in the Mactaggart competition contains a Flaubertian touch of irony:
The donor intends this competition to sharpen the written expression of ideas, and to provide--for the winner--Education through Travel.
Never were nouns more appropriately capitalized to highlight their onimousness: our winner intends to spend her C$10,000 touring Europe, beginning in January, and, knowing her, and also knowing my desolate and grim home city and her unrelentingly hostile attitude toward it, she won't come back at all if she can avoid it. Education through Travel? Christ, this is Cuba without the tropical temperatures: Liberation through Travel is more like it. So if I don't promote her weblog more, it's because I know one day very soon it's going to be my only point of contact with her, and the more regular readers she has, the more I'll be one of anonymous dozens or hundreds, receiving occasional and entertaining reports from London, Paris, Vienna, Athens, what have you.
And after all, she's a writer, and therefore The Competition. No one ever handed me $10,000 to go file reports on the beauty of Unter den Linden in autumn or Nevsky Prospekt in the orgasmic thaw of April. It's the equivalent of hand-to-hand combat against someone wielding a flamethrower. Jiujitsu won't save you.
So that's the "straight" record on Sarah, or at least that's as straight as I can make it. She's pretty terrific. I don't know why she was so dead set on a correction of the previous entry, in which the only salient fact mentioned was the abnormal length of her tongue. That stuff remains entirely true: her tongue is amusingly long and endearingly prehensile, as, indeed, she admits here.
I do love watching bridges burn, and it's nice when I don't have to get my own hands all ashy. Marc Weisblott wants your vote in the worst weblog of 2002 sweepstakes. Of course, his nominees aren't really the worst weblogs; just somewhat popular ones he thinks are overdue for random, impish humbling.
Whom did I vote for, you ask? I'll never tell--because, honestly, I've already forgotten. Andrew Sullivan's $80K windfall ("I'm telling you people, I can't blog without an intern, dammit!") might have gotten the better of me temporarily, but you should steel yourself and vote on lack of merit alone.
I gots stuff
A preliminary report on Christmas loot.
I wish I could tell you, for contrarianism's sake, that Michael Chabon's Clay and Kavalier is one iota less compelling than everyone else has already claimed it to be. Alas. I've burned through close to 400 pages of it since last night.
A single-disc Lawrence of Arabia DVD seems just wrong somehow, but it's nice to be able to watch it on widescreen at home. Now if only digital technology could give us a way to tone down Anthony Quinn's ham acting. Mental note to self: locate a copy of the made-for-TV version of Terence Rattigan's Ross, with Ian McKellen as Lawrence.
Strange Brew: what more can be said about it? Its desperate patchiness is really beside the point. Moranis and Thomas are so convincing as brothers, they basically deserved Oscars; but I wouldn't want to go back and take Robert Duvall's away from him that year, necessarily. Also, I can't think of, or type, the phrase "The Royal Canadian Institute For The Mentally Insane" without cracking up. Still, they might have wanted to spend more than a weekend on the script. You could probably write a movie this funny, but then that's part of the charm.
Keeping it unreal
Jeez, hasn't Kwanzaa been ridiculed out of existence yet? I guess not. A celebrant quoted in an SF Chronicle story begs readers: "Don't turn it into a black (version of) Christmas. Don't commercialize it, otherwise you lose what it's all about." Damn, someone should have thought of that before they plopped the son of a bitch right down in that week between Christmas and New Years'. If one doesn't want it to be a "black Christmas", maybe August was the right month.
Personally, I think it would be nice if Americans started observing Boxing Day (that's tomorrow, guys) under its right name; it's a ready-made festival of Anglospherism and capitalism, yet it's open to people of all skin tones. Unlike, I should add, Kwanzaa, wherein racial unity, racial autarky, and blind obedience to racial leaders are solemnly reinforced. But it must be OK because it has the President's stamp of approval.
Are there segregationist White Pride holidays, and if so, what presents do people give one another? Strom Thurmond presidential campaign memorabilia? Suspenders and Doc Martens? Skrewdriver CDs?
In other Report weblogs, Christmas edition
My colleagues are hard at work for your reading enjoyment. Kevin Michael Grace has a detailed update on the state of free speech in Canada (not merely dead, but buried and putrefying). Rick Hiebert is calling Warren Kinsella's bluff. And Dave Stevens is lucky to be alive for Christmas.
In our continuing TorranceWatch feature, Kelly Torrance's weblog is entering its thirty-fifth consecutive day of idleness. Mademoiselle is known to be alive and well, incidentally. She is perfectly capable of updating the site, but at this point such an event would paralyze us all with metaphysical bowel-loosening terror of the unfamiliar. We would be like small terrified mammals, staring up in blank, nameless astonishment at two perfect gray moons doing a sinuous dance in the night sky.
"My boner is screaming hello"
Via Richard Ames: a page of terroristic urban anagrammatic vandalisms involving theatre and restaurant marquees. I pray no Photoshop was used in these productions. Incidentally, if you rearrange the letters in "Richard Ames" you can form the words "AIDS MARCHER."
I need to go wrap presents eventually, but I'd have felt bad about not posting anything today. C.S. Lewis said we read to know we are not alone, so at Christmas the effort of writing for a public (however paltry) arguably becomes more important. Joanne Jacobs is one weblogger who hasn't disappeared and I must recommend her TechCentralStation column on educational technology. She plays it very straight, but blows Utopian visions of digitally enabled schooling halfway to the moon. It is astonishing that this kind of peabrained hype is still possible.
Students can interact with experts around the world. For example, in 2025, they're getting messages from astronauts 'taking core samples on Mars,' and doing real experimental work with the data.
Yes! Someone, some benighted doofus who actually works in new media, actually wrote that this was going to happen. "Sorry, Bob, I can't do the safety check on the spare oxygen tanks right now, I have to go explain volcanism to Parkdale Middle School."
I am dumbstruck, almost literally floored, that people could still believe education will become palatable just by virtue of looking like Playstation. Teachers won't have to teach anymore, you see; virtual edu-bots will lead the children through 3-D Virtual Ancient Rome and they'll just be so spellbound that they'll absorb everything they need to know--presumably including the correct Latin noun endings of the third declension.
Such goofball optimism would be excusable if we hadn't just marched through a century's worth of new media, each of which, in its own time, was going to revolutionize learning of its own accord. The gramophone, the wireless, the television, the pre-Internet personal computer; all were going to help create a better-informed public, and none, in their maturity, can claim anything resembling success. The problem being, of course, that the child (or the adult learner) always has to meet you halfway. It takes difficult, active work--some of it rote memorization, some of it context-acquisition that makes satisfying sense only after years of assembly--to get to the stage of loving learning for its own sake.
And don't people know this in their bones? Why do educational professionals dream of being able to stop "lecturing" to young people? If you didn't want to lecture to young people why didn't you get some other job, you lazy, horrible, evil asshole?
I mean, as a writer I certainly have days when I wish I could give people direct access to my thoughts, instead of trying to do the work of putting them in intelligible, semi-attractive form. Maybe the technology will be available one day. But if I relinquish my role as mental self-editor you're not going to hang around very long. "Man, that dump I took the other day was like giving birth to a sofa. ...I wonder if a guy could get away with wearing one of those little Hitler mustaches nowadays. Is it still too soon? ...I bet J-Lo gets really tired of her boyfriends smacking her ass just to watch it jiggle..." If computers came with a remote control, everybody would be pounding the channel-change button after about 25 seconds of unmediated consciousness. Not just mine--anybody's.
Similarly, there's no hope of magically bringing children into direct contact with the raw mass of the culture and letting them process it like born info-vores. Intermediation is the job! Shut up and get on with it, guys!
Lord, why didn't you take Sting instead
Not that reminders are necessary, but Pierre Bourque's native Quebec really must be a distinct society. His Joe Strummer headline: "HEART ATTACK KILLS 70'S BAND THE CLASH CROONER". Leaving aside the singular characterization of Strummer as a "crooner", it's a tad disconcerting to see the Clash dismissed as a "70's band". Did any subeditor in the world write "60'S GUITARIST HARRISON DIES" when George went towards the light?
Not that the Clash were the Beatles. One's instinct, within the gummy tidal wave of postmortem adulation, is to point out how much the group has to answer for. For Bono's intolerable posturing alone--traceable directly to the Clash's paint-spattered doorstep--Joe is looking at a solid five millennia in Purgatorio. But one day the self-conscious moral trendsetting will be forgot, and the best of the Clash's output easily has the momentum to last so long. "Death or Glory", Mr. Mellor? It's a lucky man, as you were, who tastes the one before the other.
[UPDATE, afternoon of the 24th: nobody is going to improve on The Ambler's take.]
On with the action now
I have returned alive from Calgary, using the word "alive" in the broadest possible sense. It's not even the 24th yet and I now have total physical exhaustion to go with the psychic torpor of the season. Calgary, I admit, gives a strong impression of leaving Edmonton in the dust; it shows a much nicer face to the casual visitor, and there seem to be building cranes on every block, Kyoto or no Kyoto. Upon returning I feel obliged to love my home city all the more for its gray Gdansk-ness. When the bus pulled out, the city was enveloped in an arctic fog that really ought to have been accompanied by some Sibelius. It was that fog that makes the sun look as dim and cold as the moon. If there is ever a nuclear winter, we shall be the best-prepared persons on the planet for it.
According to the gang at Gene Expression and their blogroll, I "look evil". This wouldn't be nearly so troubling if they weren't such devoted students of human physiognomy. I am almost forced to conclude that I am, in fact, evil--genetically?--despite occasional delusions to the contrary. I guess I'll go crank up some Black Sabbath and sit down with a steaming cup of brimstone.
The pitfall/the excursion
I'm off to Calgary for the day, so the weblog will likely remain in park until sometime tomorrow afternoon. I do think it's slightly comic that Alberta should have two major cities so very alike. Yes, yes, anyone can point out ten or twenty supposed "differences" in temperament, function, and appearance between the cities, but I'm sorry: they're not really a study in contrasts, like Vancouver and Victoria, or Ottawa and Toronto. They are about as close to twins as cities get. They are practically an admission that our imaginations failed us somewhere back in time.
Anyway, like I say, I'll be down south, but I hope everyone has a Pleasant Valley Sunday. For fun I leave you with Snoop Dogg's Shizzolator. It runs slow but it delivers better results than most webpage re-parsers. Word, G.
A vote for the pipet
A.C. Douglas thinks that the Blowhards and yours truly are out to lunch on the WTC redesign. He likes the Libeskind plan. That's the Pipet Wrapped in String Cheese. From a distance, it's more accurately described as the Pipet Wrapped in String Cheese and Containing a Turd. (The brown stuff, apparently, is vegetation: Gardens are a Good Thing.)
But this is to overlook the unique good taste of the ground-level memorial structure. Libeskind has created a round plaza with Ground Zero in the centre and, with a coroner's meticulousness, has mapped onto it a "matrix of heroes" containing the paths taken to the scene by the dead firemen and cops. In short, Libeskind proposes to commemorate the slaughtered public servants in the best way America knows how: by means of strips of industrial paint on the floor. You, the ordinary citizen, will be able to saunter across or along the holy vectors underneath a hellish, jagged commemorative ceiling of German Expressionist glass. In brown and lavender, those being the colours, apparently, of the New Solemnity.
In truth, nothing about the Libeskind design except its size would seem particularly unusual in an ambitious bus terminal. It does not make the mistake, as other designs do, of conflating the "heroic" with Star Trek. I hadn't thought it especially "populist" to wonder why commemorative designs should look like anime nightmares. ACD spits venom at the doomed Peterson/Littenberg plan, and not without justice, for it is timid, and timidity has no place in a tribute to courage. However, I do favour sobriety, for the purpose we are discussing. If forced to vote I'd have to go with the Octothorps; their semiotic significance is baffling, but they are iconic, and imposing without being outright monstrous, anyway. That is something at least. But we all know that, barring a miracle, the planners are going to opt for a hodgepodge that incorporates the worst features of all the individual proposals.
Stepping on gender landmines, part 2
A reader, who indubitably wishes to remain nameless, sends along weblogger Ted Barlow's recent entry about his experience studying transsexuals. Fascinating! How is it relevant to my previous discussion of the subject? Well, if you use a social definition of gender that doesn't rely on merely looking for a scrotum (or even an Adam's apple), it turns out that male-to-female transsexuals remain flagrantly male:
In the end, we found that transsexuals, the most feminine men on Earth... were indistinguishable from straight or gay men. We couldn't support the thesis that transsexuals are women in men's bodies.
As I said before, it seems increasingly true, on evidence available to a casual observer, that most M-to-F transsexuals no longer pretend to want to be women. They want to be--transsexuals.
There are exceptions, of course--people who have gone all the way and claim to be happy in their new bodies. As individuals they must be taken at their word. But may one point out that the original ethical basis of gender-reassignment research was the earnest assertion there were large numbers of "women trapped in mens' bodies" and vice versa, people whose only salvation was surgical alteration? Skeptics were dismissed as ill-informed and cruel, but now the basis seems to be "Hey, life is a carnival! Wheeee! Titties!"
Who are the doctors still doing these surgeries, and what belief are they motivated by? The old, apparently mistaken one? Or the simple desire to provide surgical enhancement to all comers and buy a Porsche with the proceeds? Either way, is it advisable to entrust your body to such a person?
The Calgary Herald's Ric Dolphin is doing top-notch political reporting these days and his account of the muddle on Ralph Klein's right flank gets it... well, right.
No mention of the dreaded 'S' word though. The political money Randy Thorsteinson won't take is, I suspect, seeking a credible voice of separatism, if only for the sake of establishing it as a bargaining chip. Such a threat should be established, but "credible" means "credible"--and the Randy Party, credible or not, refuses to put it in its platform.
To repeat what I've said before: it would take the coming-out of just one senior figure, whether an old-time PC MLA or someone well-known outside politics, to create the option and test the true depth of separatist sentiment. A new party wouldn't have to have a detailed plan for alternative government or a centralized structure; at least two parties (the United Farmers and Social Credit) have actually won Alberta elections without having such a plan or structure. The party just has to say "Ralph Klein isn't willing to consider threatening a referendum on separation. We are."
A lot of people hate Ted Byfield, but if Ted Byfield were to found such a party and run it in an election, it would go to at least 30% in the polls overnight. Well, I can tell you Ted Byfield's not going to do it: he's too busy. Ted Morton could do it; he's already won elected office in this province with a hundred-thousand-some votes. But he's a busy man, too, and I'm not sure he wants to butt heads with Ralph. The old-time politicians who are known and trusted, the Marv Moores and Connie Ostermans and Ray Speakers, are mostly still beholden, one way or another, to the present-day government or the social circles tied to it. Same with the well-known oilmen, I suppose. But this is the kind of person I'm thinking of; one of them would be doing us a big favour if they bit the bullet and came out.
And, in fact, Ralph would be doing us and himself a big favour if he'd quietly convince a current MLA to wander off the reservation, with tacit permission. Perhaps someone would be so kind as to pitch it to him as the Cosh Plan. All you have to do, Ralph, is take aside some half-smart, well-trained junior rural MLA and feed him the dialogue. Your plant calls a press conference and says "I will henceforth sit in the Assembly as an Independent Conservative, and I intend to run in the next election, in my riding, on a separatist platform." Hue and cry. Ralph, you make a show of opposing and denouncing him. "I'm very troubled and disappointed that Stinky has decided to leave the caucus. But of course this is the kind of thing that happens when Ottawa fails to respect the constitutional arrangements between itself and the provinces. I can only hope the separatist virus stops spreading of its own accord."
And then we see whether people flock to Stinky's banner--which is, secretly, secure in the hands of Ralph. Which is more or less fine by me. The question, Mr. Premier, is whether you want the lanyard in your hands when the trial balloon goes up.
Rick the Miscellanist, by e-mail, sends a Christmas gift to my readers: recipes for nalysnyky, or, as I called them before, "nalyshniki". (I'll stand by that on-the-fly transliteration, certainly, against an authority that uses "pyrogy" and "pierogi" in the same recipe.)
"Are they yummy?" Rick asks. The ones I had today were all right, but I'm used to eating them at the Pyrogy House, which is not too far from where I live and has a credible claim to being the best Ukrainian restaurant in the universe (not excluding the Ukraine). Ergo, I have unrealistic standards. The caterer's nalyshniks were a bit too pancakey for my taste, more like the "thick" recipe provided by Rick than the "thin". Yes, they are pancakes, notionally, but ideally they should be like a crèpe, not fat and starchy like something you'd fix for your own breakfast. Of course, if you're hammering nails into an Orthodox church all day, you need the carbs; I make no claim to having seen an authentic nalyshnik at the table of a doughty Uke serf.
Bing Crosby's in hell right now, you know
I finally worked up the nerve to go toe-to-toe with Christmas and I knocked that sucker flat on its can. Crowds of shuffling Brie-stuffed yuppies and toothless chaw-cheeked out-of-towners parted for me like the Red Sea. Items on my list were in stock, practically panting to be bought. Now all I need to do is finish shopping and then wrap everything. Well, great, there goes my good mood.
Wrapping gifts is just one more thing about this holiday that makes me regard it is an excuse to humiliate me--an entire season of the year devoted to my humiliation. "Look, it's very simple; all you have to do is read somebody's mind, get them what they want without fucking up the brand or the model number or the size or the colour, don't lose the receipt, don't forget anybody, wrap the gifts attractively, and present them. Also, you will have to attend lots of social occasions with strangers, appear vaguely contented, and sing a bunch of songs nobody knows the words to. In short, do pretty much everything you're bad at."
I mean, why can't we have math-based holidays instead? When's the festival where I get to take advantage of my knowledge of Roman emperors and the history of chemical engineering? "No, sorry, we've geared the holiday toward sociability, attractiveness, and festive spirit. You got outvoted." I'm not even, I insist yet again, a Scrooge: I don't mind spending money on other people. You would not believe the amounts of money I can kiss goodbye without breaking a sweat. But come to that, I think I'd prefer to just... give the money. Or burn it, if that's what was expected.
But I suppose this really is the idea behind the holiday: once a year the recluse has to be symbolically dragged from his lair. Ding-dong ding-dong let's hear it for the goddamn brotherhood of man and shiny objects and peace on earth and consumer electronics. Yeah, OK. I'm on board but I don't pretend to be anything but a conscript. When I was six years old I had to narrate the school Christmas play, which was "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". A big part of me cheered for him then, as an actorly exercise; it's never entirely worn off.
A question of ratios
Flit is watching the hilarious convolutions of Paul Martin's excuse for a weblog and explaining why, if you have 50,000 soldiers, only 2,000 can be sent overseas at a time. Very good, Bruce, but we Hellyerized Alberta Report and B.C. Report in 1999: those magazines no longer exist.
Whether or not Defence is the most efficient ministry ever, it's certainly true that it was about the only federal ministry subjected to cuts that were both deep and permanent during the Liberals' quest to balance the national books. This sums up the Liberal approach to government--they pared back extra harshly on the core function of the nation-state, the most essential one, arguably the only truly justifiable one. They regard our soldiers as a tumour, a triviality. It is not the least of their crimes.
Apologies for the sustained absence... I've just come from the office Christmas party. This being Edmonton, it was a catered Ukrainian lunch. Freighted as I am with nalyshniki and meatballs, weblogging may be sporadic for the remainder of the afternoon. Plus I still have to do some Christmas shopping. By which I mean, "start on my Christmas shopping."
Our Pontius Pilate theme continues... Some of you may recall that Dave Stevens was working on a home-brewed surf-rock version of "Pilate and Christ" in September. (If you want to get technical, it was office-brewed, really.) The track is destined for a surf-rock compilation version of Jesus Christ Superstar that OmOm Records is assembling. Dave's weblog will have all the details as they become available, but I'm pleased to offer readers an exclusive monaural preview of "Pilate and Christ". Click here to listen to the RealAudio goodness!
Actually, to be perfectly candid, the surfed-up version of "Everything's Alright" swings harder and has a nicer arrangement, even though it was pounded out in a fraction of the time. (Surf rock purists will be horrified to learn, however, that a fuzzbox effect enters the scene about 3'40" into the track. BLASPHEMY.) Visit Dave's pad to find the RealAudio and get all retro-ey.
Congratulations to my colleague Jeremy Lott on being name-checked and quoted at length in the Washington Post. It is a shame that he is continually identified as a Canadian, just because his current employer lives in the land of Eddie Shack and tourtière. J-Lo has no lifelong psychic training in bearing the stigma, but he is suffering the repeated blows with a dignity that is itself almost... dare I say it? Un-American...
On a related topic, I am long overdue to thank the Cato Institute's Gene Healy for recent traffic and excessive praise. The sight of a Canadian commentator who espouses libertarianism (albeit tacitly, most of the time) causes most Americans an instinctual revulsion. What is this beast that walks like a man and quotes Lysander Spooner? Gene was very kind to overcome what bio-ethicists call "the yuk factor", and of course his own site is terrific.
A missive from Cape Breton Island reminds us that Mormons are not the only folks with too few names to go around. Have any of you read W.O. Mitchell's The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon? It is to curling what Malamud's The Natural is to baseball. (Now all the American readers are laughing... I told you there was a stigma.) The heroes of The Black Bonspiel are a small-town curling rink (U.S. translation: "team") consisting of four guys, three of whom are named Charlie Brown. They're distinguished by their occupations--one of them is "Pipe-Fitting" Charlie Brown, the metalworker is "Malleable" Charlie Brown, and so forth. On Cape Breton, Mike O'Leary reports, an onomastic regime very like this really does hold.
[Out here,] most people are named MacDonald and almost everyone is a MacSomethingElse. I work in a paper mill where there are a couple of dozen MacDonalds and almost 100 MacSomethings. Peters and Pauls are very well represented in the given names, so nicknames are a must. We have "Loud" Roddy, "Red" Roddy, "Black" Roddy, "Old" Roddy, and "Young" Roddy MacDonalds. (FYI, a few of Al MacInnis' siblings work in the mill--another MacSomething.)
Horses designed by committees
The establishment architects seem eager to take advantage of Osama's act of urban renewal to put up skyscrapers that look like they're ready to fall down without help. Either that, or these models all got damaged somewhere along the line and weren't fixed. (Is this to be Doktor Caligehry's legacy? He's made it mandatory to give architectural models a good solid kick before they're presented?) Even the relatively rectilinear THINK design incorporates swooping epicycloid thingies, though at night it would look like a cheerful Tinkertoy with alien spaceships hovering inside. And what could be more commemorative than that?
It was a mistake for THINK to quote the Eiffel Tower in their slideshow. When you stumble across it, it just makes you go "Oh, so that's how an artist does it. Now we just need to find an artist..." So far it doesn't look like New York is going to be saved by an arriviste with one powerful idea, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was. Pray for one, though.
[UPDATE, December 19: Blowhard Michael covers the same territory here.]
The unkindest cut
Weird search-engine referral of the day: sex change surgery canada.
I have no expertise on that subject, I'm afraid. But it's an interesting one. In bygone days, the rationale usually heard for wanting one's gender changed permanently--a thing that, at best, can only be half accomplished in biological fact, and at significant cost in medical morbidity--is that, deep down inside, one feels like a woman, or a man--whatever one is not, as the case may be.
Well, now, how would you know something like that? This is pure epistemological arrogance, surely? Nobody knows what anyone else feels like "deep down inside." Getting your sex organs rearranged like pizza toppings because you're seeking validation for subjective feelings of imagined solidarity with someone else's subjective feelings... well, that strikes me as a pretty funny idea.
Of course, the old pretext for gender switching seems to be fading away, in favour of a more or less open desire for the best (?) of both worlds. There seem to be a lot of people who get partway through the gender-reassignment "process", and then beg off at the cock-'n'-boobies stage. I can understand why a sex-trade worker would do so, to cater to the market for hermaphroditism (Eddie Murphy, call your office). Unsettling, perhaps, but rational. To speculate on other potential motives would carry me perilously far beyond my knowledge of the subject.
The State as school
Seen in my inbox: a Times-Colonist piece in which a "drug educator" complains that legalizing small quantities of marijuana, as the federal government apparently intends to do, will "send a mixed message to kids."
You've heard that one before, though.
I am fascinated, entranced, when I see people taking this view of the law as an atavistic Mother Goose-like purveyor of crude moral lessons. To them, criminal justice is a Skinnerian exercise in asserting our common values, a dumbshow played out with the lives of citizens for the instruction of--the children! We throw drug users in jail not because they have caused identifiable harm to anyone but themselves, nor even because they have violated the social order in some nebulous way: we do it to impress the theoretical distinction between right and wrong upon infants.
If you take this view seriously, the most pressing practical concern in politics becomes pursuing the many species of private wrong which remain unbanned, unfettered by the law's majesty. That pursuit is theoretically endless, but we know which way it runs: it is, after all, the premise of the police state.
In practice, of course, force and teaching don't seem to make very good bedfellows. We began forcing people to share their wealth with others in the decade of the 1910's: has the existence of income tax made us better than the Victorians at sharing our worldly goods? Isn't it curious that liquor prohibition seemed to turn the United States into an entire nation of drunks? Did throwing Christians to the lions work wonders for paganism by "sending a message" to Roman children?
But these are familiar arguments, and despite being familiar, the drug warriors rarely, if ever, care to rebut them.
Joanne Jacobs has a link to the Utah Baby Namer, a compendium of the bizarre Christian names Mormons select for their children. You could spend hours puzzling over, say, the boys' 'Z' names alone. Zeegan? Zemery? Zhaz?? Zaragrunudgeyon???
Why does Utah spawn such freakish names? Nobody seems to know. Jacobs cites the commonness of many Utah surnames as one possible reason--a last name like "Smith" seems to demand a very distinctive first name. Some of the common Mormon surnames, like "Card", are shared by simply mind-boggling numbers of people--partly, I imagine, because of the church's polygamous past, but partly because they believe in just having big families. I once had the pleasure of conversing with a distinguished Alberta sociologist named B.Y. Card; he was a bit surprised that a gentile was able to instantly deduce, Sherlock-fashion, what the "B.Y." stood for. (I resisted the temptation to say "Elementary, my dear Mormon!") But I bet there are a quite a lot of fellows, in Utah and demi-Mormonized parts of the world, named Brigham Young Card.
The need, then, for very distinctive first names is obvious in a religious community with strong kin structures and a narrow genetic base. But there's another unrevealed factor here! Namely, the deep and highly significant link between Mormonism and science fiction. Go back over the names in the Utah Baby Namer list... think some of those people have watched one too many Star Trek episodes? There are circumstantial reasons for this. Some Mormons certainly channel their children into the studious, cloistered lifestyle which often goes hand-in-hand with SF fandom. Brigham Young University has encouraged the literary study of speculative fiction. Orson Scott Card, a widely admired SF author, is a Mormon. But the big reason is that Mormonism is, in fact, a science fiction religion. Its theology holds that "God" is a being who created the world out of pre-existing matter, and placed intelligent life on many planets. The Book of Mormon contains a whole speculative alternate history of the human past which any Heinlein or Ellison would admire. Joseph Smith--if it's not too unkind to mention it--was the L. Ron Hubbard of his day. Wait and see what kind of monickers second- and third-generation Scientologist children end up with.
Magazine Corrections We Aren't Likely To See Dept.:
In its April 19, 2000, Canadian edition, Time magazine named 51-year-old Brian Staszenski a "Hero of the Planet" for his tireless efforts to fight human industry in Alberta, Canada. Time has now learned that Mr. Staszenki, in his spare time, likes to fill 15-year-old enviro-bunnies to the eyeballs with bongsmoke and pork their tiny brains out. Time regrets the error.
[UPDATE, Dec. 19: The link above has rotted, so here, in the public interest, is the gist of the Edmonton Sun story it originally led to, with acknowledgements to the Sun and writer Andrea Sands:
A world-renowned Alberta environmentalist once named Time magazine's Hero of the Planet is under house arrest after admitting to having sex eight years ago with a teenage girl. Brian Michael Staszenski, 51, of Thorsby, pleaded guilty yesterday to sexual exploitation and was given an 18-month conditional sentence during a provincial court appearance in Leduc, 33 km south of Edmonton.
The man with the basin
I think I had a dream about reading an especially fine paragraph in a book and thinking "I should really post that to my webpage." I'm pretty sure this was a dream, because I can't find any note of or clue to where the paragraph might have been, if it actually existed. Of the half-dozen or so books I'm halfway through, only a couple are close to hand. I don't think the mysteriously fascinating matter came from Ann Wroe's Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man, although the book itself is actually pretty amazing. You could learn from it, for example, where the Cosa Nostra gets its gift for metaphor--in our day, Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes, but two thousand years ago,
a man who was out of favour or had lost his influence [with the Emperor] was dismissed with the single word friget, "He's cold."
I think I heard Paulie Walnuts say friget once, or was that "frig it"? Wroe's book is about how we came to have all these ideas and images of Pontius Pilate, despite knowing maybe three or four verifiable things about the man from sources outside the Gospel. When I say "three or four" things I speak of positive facts; his low profile in the historical record, considering what soon became of Roman Judea, is itself suggestive. Pilate may be the best reason to consider the Gospels broadly true, as history. The jarring note he introduces testifies to their general versimilitude; if we knew they weren't based on real events, we would admire the high irony--directed at all true believers--of Matthew 27:24;
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.
In other Report weblogs, issue 5
Recently in other Repo-logs: Jeremy Lott lives through surname hell. Kevin Steel equates pleasure with Payne. Dave Stevens abhors a vacuum. And Kelly Torrance... well, perhaps the less said the better: she's on her 27th consecutive day of blogging absolutely fuckall. Anyone know what the record is?
A scan of Volokh Nation reveals that Mounties still have the power to inspire awe.
Whoa! They have Mounties enforcing the hate crime laws! They may be on an evil mission, but Mounties are still cool.
Of course, by their nature "hate crime laws" cannot merely be enforced: the police authority has to interpret them on the fly, and in practice, define them. (And no, they don't show up on horseback when they come to arrest you.) This will, in time, tend to erode the goodwill people in the Mountie-policed parts of Canada (rural areas outside Ontario and Quebec) still feel for our iconic RCMP brethren.
But the goodwill certainly still exists. As many of you know, I grew up in the country and moved to the city when I went to school. Where I live, this means I switched police forces from the Mounties to the city cops.
What's interesting about this? Let me shift gears for a moment. Americans find Mounties fascinating for cultural reasons, but on historical logic, Americans should hate Mounties. Shall we count the reasons? They're a federal police force; that's a pretty un-American idea. They were repeatedly used for domestic spying until well after the Second World War. They were founded explicitly as a paramilitary police unit, and have fought in Canadian wars continually since the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. And their original purpose was to ward off the machinations of Manifest Destiny, keeping American whisky traders and other ne'er-do-wells south of the 49th parallel after the Canadian Confederation purchased what is now Western Canada. The Mounties fought Americans, or would have: mostly a few stern looks and occasional hogtyings of southern interlopers did the trick.
Oh, plus they're Royal, and their original mandate was specifically imperialistic. That's, what, four or five perfectly sound reasons for Americans to loathe Mounties. But they don't.
Anyway, the point I was going to make before was this: I've lived with Mounties, and with city cops, and let me tell you, Mountie traditions make a difference. The original North-West Mounted Police, from which today's RCMP is descended, was indeed founded as a paramilitary unit. But on the frontier the Mounties were often the only connection to law and civilization. And the frontier isn't something that just disappears from Canadian history, running down to the Pacific à la F.J. Turner; it sort of curves around northward, and it's still there now, arguably just a few hours' drive from the border. So the early Mounties, and many of the more recent ones, found themselves doing little conventional police work. They settled informal disputes, kept tabs on the health of remote communities, delivered important missives and medical supplies. Every Canadian civil servant represents the Queen, in theory, but this was a deeply felt reality for those Mounties, and for the people in their divisions. Because of the sheer hugeness of Canada's landscape, they were super-incentivized to deal with problems whenever possible without hauling someone before a judge.
To some degree Mounties are still honour-conscious, and servant-minded, in a way other coppers clearly are not. I won't pretend I never met a Mountie who wasn't a dick with a badge, but on the whole they're humane, attentive, and accommodating. Since large cities took over their own policing decades ago, the RCMP has never learned to regard the citizenry as an enemy. It's the city cops who are in peril of succumbing to the paramilitary mentality of permanent war--who are becoming steroid-addled Terminators gazing coolly on urban chaos from behind aviator shades. (Edmonton, I hope, is in less danger of this, owing to the continuing influence of this guy.)
In the 1920s, the Mounties more or less refused outright to police liquor prohibition in Alberta, and the government of the day went ahead with a short-lived, disastrous experiment in provincial policing. Why did the Mounties not want to do that job? I suspect that, deep down, they regarded it (correctly) as inconsistent with their honour. In the 1970s and '80s they gradually extricated themselves from their longtime domestic security and intelligence responsibilities; there were other reasons to give that job to a new agency, but I suspect that move may have had something to do with the honour of the Mounted, too (which was rapidly being called into question by historical revelations about their spying on "subversives"). And while city cops everywhere have eagerly embraced the abomination of photo radar, the Mounties have been noticeably more reluctant to nestle in with that particular money teat. They're conscious that the RCMP has a certain reputation, within Canada and the world at large, and they don't want to squander a hundred years of moral capital. They know better.
The Campbells are coming
Tim Carvell has a very funny (and useful!) review of canned soups in Friday's Slate. Basic message: the ones to buy are Campbell's (because you know exactly what you're getting--your nostalgic midday blast of sodium and beeflets) and Wolfgang Puck's (let's face it--products really are better when they're backed by someone's personal name. Like this website!).
I enjoyed the link to the Campbell's Soup FAQ, although thanks for not taking me directly to the document or anything, Timbo. He describes this query, with a comic's instinct for the adjective, as "heartbreaking":
Can I eat Campbell's soup right out of the can?
OK--I added that last sentence myself. The fact is, unheated canned soup is safe, even for the sickly specimens of human garbage who would consider insulting their own bowels with such a thing.
The laugh line, for me, is "Our chefs have already prepared and cooked the soups for you." Chefs, huh? I think this is what they used to call "the credibility gap" back in the '70s. Frankly I'm not sure I like the idea of some swarthy, seropositive Frenchman ladling my soup personally into the can in between sneezes and Gauloises. Please, Campbell's, reassure me that my soup has only been handled by a sterilized, soulless metal behemoth situated next to a giant, reeking tailings pond of split pea and alphabet-shaped noodles. Sometimes, corporate is good.
Campbell's makes up for the "chefs" solecism, I think, by pulling no punches in this question:
Where can I find the Golden Corn Soup and Ramen Noodles?
No longer sold...in the United States? Was Golden Corn Soup a pawn in some demented game of foreign-policy chess? Why do I sense Kissinger's hand in this? I guess it's just another example of the jackass corporate decision-making whereby the Mexicans get to buy classic VW Beetles for twenty years after the model's been dropped in the U.S.
But I love the brutal candour of that part about "We sold the Ramen Noodle business." No "We are unable to continue providing this blah-blah-blah-blah at this time." Just: "We sold it. It's gone. Remember a little thing called the Ramen Glut of '97? Take it on the chin and move on, punter."
Incidentally, the optimum shelf life of Campbell's soup is described as "one to two years", so some of you Y2K stockpilers may want to consider holding soup-themed block parties and/or cotillions over the holidays to reduce inventory. Just a thought.
Giving the game away
I don't suppose I should just let the rest of the blogosphere chatter about David Ahenakew, the Saskatchewan Indian leader who admires Hitler so much. (Damian Penny is all over the breaking developments.) Western Canada is sort of my turf. What astonishes me, really, is that people are surprised that Ahenakew is such a bloody-minded fellow. I'd have thought it was one thing to seethe with idle (and execrable) hatred of the Jews, but quite another to threaten an actual racial uprising in your home country. Here's a choice quote from July, one that caused absolutely no one to question whether Ahenakew was fit to hold the Order of Canada (or the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, or an honourary law degree from the University of Regina).
David Ahenakew of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations said later there will be consequences if natives' grievances are not taken seriously. "The way things are happening in this country with Indian Affairs is leading to physical confrontation," he said. "We had it here a few years ago but when it breaks out across the country, you won't have the army, you won't have the police forces--you won't have anything to stop the destruction that will take place."
Such is Canada. Let a man profess admiration for Hitler, and the police set the thoughtcrime wheels in motion. But when he actually proposes active racial war, there is naught but silence on all sides.
Of course, all of Canada's Indians have carte blanche to mutter about "physical confrontation". We are still too prejudiced against them, I suppose, to grant them the dignity of taking such statements seriously. Perhaps Ahenakew's tirade will make us pay closer attention. One does not wish to suggest that there are other Indian students of Hitler's methods, but weren't Ahenakew's views known within that community when he campaigned for and attained the highest postings in the Assembly of First Nations and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations? Ahenakew has been quoted as saying before:
I could see that what was happening to our people was the same kind of exploitation and degradation I had seen in Korea and Egypt.
That's Egypt as in post-Suez Crisis Egypt, where Ahenakew served as a peacekeeper. (Rumour has it he won the Iron Cross First Class With Oak Leaves.) It's obvious to the rest of us now what he meant by "exploitation": he meant that there were Jews in the world who had the infinite temerity to arm themselves. How long ago must the details of his stance have been known to the myriads of Indian organizers Ahenakew met with privately over the years? This isn't some rural closet case we're talking about here--being a grand chief of the AFN, Ahenakew wasn't exactly on the buckskin fringes of Indian politics. Yet judging by Sunday's comments, he's not shy about his Hitler-worship. We're just finding out about it now because there was a reporter within earshot.
So long, and thanks for all the cuneiform
More Columnar Tropes Dept.: you know, it hasn't escaped my attention that I spend much of my time needling those I admire and appreciate, and I'm about to do it to Joe Bob Briggs--or, as it says on his birth certificate, John Bloom. That there are still American columnists like Bloom reassures one that H.L. Mencken and James Thurber weren't secretly from outer space. If you only know him as a trash-cinema expert, you're missing the best part of the show. The guy's just super bright.
And, like all bright people, occasionally lazy: you can catch him here doing a variant on that old favourite, "Did You Know The Chinese Invented...?" You know the drill. Did you know the Chinese invented antacids, the city bus, and crème de menthe? What a crazy, inscrutably accomplished culture! Here, Bloom gives a shout-out to the Iraqis. As a caution to those who would bomb them back to the Stone Age, he reminds us that they were the first people to drag us out of the, er, Stone Age;
Twelve thousand years ago, they invented irrigated farming. They got to be so good at it that, today, they can still produce all the food they need even when "sanctions" are imposed. They invented writing. They figured out how to tell time. They founded modern mathematics.
Etc., etc. Taking the impossibly broad definition of "Iraqis" which is implicit here--it's being used as a noun meaning "people who once lived in present-day Iraq"--there's plenty more you could credit them with: monarchism, religion, what have you. One problem is that Bloom is ascribing many of the accomplishments of Sumerian civilization (writing, for instance) to the Iraqis, which seems only questionably appropriate since the Sumerians were defeated by Semitic invaders--arguably the ancestors, at least in a cultural sense, of today's garden-variety Iraqi, if he has any there--and had the lineaments of their culture co-opted wholesale by the conqueror. They aren't the guys who invented legal codes, they're the guys who beat hell out of the guys who invented legal codes. This is like taking the school nerd's report card and switching it with the local bully's.
Of course, just about anyplace has been swept over so many times by marauding human herds that it is odious to try to assign credit for any cultural achievement older than about seven or eight hundred years. And, in fact, you're never going to see this argument used the other way in polite company. If we're going to accord Mesopotamians extra respect for inventing math, are we allowed to give the pre-Columbian peoples of the New World less respect because they managed not to discover, say, the wheel, even given an extra five thousand years to do so? That's the logical corollary, surely?
Checking Marlboro Man for a pulse
Maybe it's me. When Steve Sailer linked to Fred Reed's column "The Suicide of Marlboro Man", I thought, well, Steve's just about the smartest guy going, but we all have moments where we can't tell shit from sherbet. But then the Blowhards got in the game. Boy, doesn't this Fred Reed guy have the libertarians' number? I pretty much had to lie down by this point.
Fred's a very fine writer, one of the very fine American writers the Internet has fortuitously brought forth from the woodwork: I recommend him to you all. And the picture he paints of "hardy rustics" coming under the yoke of "pallid yups" has the ostensive virtue of even-handedness. No wild-eyed post-hippie Wal-Mart hater is Fred; Wal-Mart, he admits grudgingly, "sells almost everything cheaply," which is "A Good Thing". Now, me, I'd phrase it a little differently. I'd say that Wal-Mart has placed basic amenities of human existence within the reach of the working poor on a scale that staggers the imagination, which is A Very Good Fucking Thing Indeed. But the message is more or less the same, innit.
What bothers me, I suppose, is the subliminal romanticization of a way of life that hasn't gone anywhere and is still available to anyone with the perverse gumption to go out and get it. How much of our vast continent, exactly, has been turned into suburban spiritual wasteland? Do you suppose it is as much as two, three percent of the surface area? If you want to live in the bush--and I'll put this in bold letters so it can't be missed--go there. There are plenty of Mosquito Coasts left where a man can, by and large, live free of dog licenses and zoning boards. There is always federal tyranny of various sorts to be considered, but that's not the kind Fred is talking about in his column. He's concerned with the inevitability of local tyranny. And, in fact, his account of how local tyranny comes about is not inaccurate, but at least a local tyranny can be fled. Why don't people do that? Why don't we do that, you and I and Steve and the Blowhards? Is it because we lament the loss of a way of life we're not willing for one second to participate in? I've always regarded such laments mostly as childish noise, I'm afraid.
But should you choose to hie yourself hither into the hinterland, what you'll find when you arrive in the bush may strike you as a curious form of self-reliance. Those independent cusses out in the boonies turn out to rely pretty heavily on the feed store, the grain terminal, the parts shop, the veterinarian... perhaps slavery to John Deere and Archer Daniels Midland beats the citified kind. Fred laments of his dystopian suburb:
People make more money, and buy houses in Manor Dale Mews, but have less control over their time, and so no longer build their own barns, wire their houses, and change their own clutch-plates.
Clutch-plates, I should add, which they no doubt forged for themselves in their backyard Great Leap Forward™-brand steel furnace. Notice the subliminal argument being made here: suburbanites are awfully useless buggers, aren't they? A real man would be able to build a barn, wire a house, rassle a steer, all that good stuff. Say... you can do all that, can't you? I fear Fred works very hard to convince us that he's the sort of fellow who wouldn't dream of fraternizing with someone who can't make his own bear grease. One is placed in the awkward position of having to apologize for the capitalist division of labour.
Well, let's flip this around: the defiantly independent rustic needs himself a defiantly independent rustic wife, nu? She should be able to get a pair of overalls clean without electricity, manufacture her own soap, beat a rug, darn a sock, pluck a chicken for dinner, fashion a tampon from sphagnum moss and uncarded wool...
What's that you say back there? That sounds like it pretty much sucks? Weeeeellll, to be honest, I'm soft enough to admit that chopping firewood, pouring a foundation, and risking my digits mending a tractor don't sound much more fun to me. But I'm a man; I'm obliged to regard self-reliance, however perfectly imaginary, as the shining ideal of my sex. And, in fact, like every other man who has read Fred's column, I do feel instinctually humiliated in the implicit presence of an ex-Marine with a Purple Heart who can make his own thermite, speak Chinese, windsurf, outwit a computer, etc., etc.
Oddly, he does choose to write for a living. But he makes certain sure he doesn't have to apologize to any of us for the implicit, and genuine, effeminacy of our shared profession.
In the end, there is no way for me to get around Fred. Fred could put seven different kinds of dent in my ass if I were to say this stuff to him in person. When the balloon goes up and North Korean nukes make the cities of the plain uninhabitable, I really will be as much use as a toothless beaver. I notice that my own father is a good deal closer to Fred-dom than I am. He can, as a matter of established fact, build a barn and change a clutch-plate. I observe, too, that his father was more "self-reliant" than he is. There is no other way, at any rate, to account for his survival in the middle of nowhere when it really was the middle of Nowhere. Still, he, in his turn, grew up in a house built by his father--who was more self-reliant yet, being legitimately able and equipped, unlike his sheeplike descendants, to forge his own auto parts. Of course, his father got by in the Old Country before they even had cars. I mean, what would you do if you broke a leg? Walk it off?
And so on. Go back a thousand years and you can track down the first Cosh who climbed into a miserable little boat somewhere in Ulster and took his chances on the Irish Sea, hoping to find landfall in Caledonia. I mean, holy bloody Christ, just think of it. Now there was a man and a half; seamanship is an art form the breed must once have possessed, but it's been squeezed out of us utterly. 'Course the fellow in the boat wouldn't have been a patch on Homo neanderthalensis. It all went wrong for us, I guess, when some fellows got good at flint-knapping and others didn't.
The rudiments of manhood we pride ourselves on possessing are essentially risible, and have always been risible in any civilized generation you can name. Ooh, you can build your own barn? Use machine-milled two-by-fours for that, do you? Hey, you can wire a house? But isn't electricity for pussies? We do cultivate the remaining marks of our caveman nature willingly, and so we should--well, it's not even really a question of "should", is it? We just do, because we're programmed for it. But on the other hand, we hope for and trust in material progress, and in fact we add new caveman totems, even as we become more suburbanistic and doughy. (I hasten to add that some--like handling a firearm--should never go out of style.) An older friend of mine sneers at my generation for not having enjoyed the petit rite de passage of assembling a stereo. Somewhere his great-great-grandfather, who probably dug coal his whole life, is disgusted at the idea of owning a stereo.
Except he's not; if you were to actually ask him, he'd probably think it a fine and wondrous thing. It's part of the ever-increasing social surplus we build for ourselves as we pursue Prosperity, that Good Thing par excellence. And lest I be accuse of crude libertoid materialism, I'll refer to the gobsmackingly obvious: those paintings the Blowhards are so fond of can't exist without that same social surplus, either. Do you suppose John Singer Sargent could erect a barn? The things of the spirit appear in a civilization at the precise moment people acquire the material prosperity to allow for the existence of leisure, and of classes devoted to it. Classes of perfectly able men, in fact, who must symbolically sacrifice their manhood to it. And, to some degree, most definitely their "independence" and their "character".
Why our "things of the spirit" are in fact so relentlessly base and hideous is another question altogether, of course. Or is it? Perhaps I've stopped this fustian exactly where I should have begun it.
Test your smarts
A quick, Rich Lowry-style constitutional poser for American readers: who is going to be the president pro tempore of the Senate when it reconvenes? Do we know yet?
Until the next sitting Robert Byrd is still president pro tem. Normally, by custom, the office would shift to the longest-serving Senator in the majority party... so who is that, then? Anybody know?
[UPDATE, 1:20 am: I had another go at it and found the answer. Too slow! Thanks to NOBODY for the help!]
Other side of this life
And Zal Yanofsky of the Lovin' Spoonful has died, a truly sad event. The Star skirts around the pivotal event in his biography, but ColbyCosh.com won't: after the Spoonful ratted out their dealer to the D.A. in 1967 to keep Zal out of jail, his continued presence in the group became intolerable to the West Coast counterculture. Zal didn't get anywhere with his solo career, and the Spoonful's sound suffered from his absence; the group had dispersed by '69, and despite being the biggest-selling American group of that period, its back catalogue is only now being restored to completeness. Eventually Zal ended up starting a special little eatery in Kingston called Chez Piggy's. I had breakfast there once (without knowing who the owner was); I was fed some delicious little salmon patties--the recipe seemed to have been stolen from my own mother and improved on, two things which ought to be mutually exclusive. Everybody speaks very highly of the Pig: it is a rare combination of good food, comfort, attractiveness, and inclusiveness. In short, they say there are no second acts in American lives... but Zal was Canadian, so he got one. R.I.P.
More Gore, more Lott, more blogtracking doodads
Jeez, suddenly I've got a lot to write about. Let me try to knock a few items off the agenda.
Thanks to reader Grahame Young for an inadvertent heads-up on Al Gore's withdrawal from the 2004 presidential race. "Was his appearance on [SNL] tied to his decision not to run today? Not funny enough?" Grahame asks, tongue in cheek. I always thought it was a mistake for Adlai Gore to try and come back in '04. Let someone else--preferably Joe Lieberman, who's been waffling on his pledge not to oppose Gore in the primaries--get chewed up by a wartime Republican incumbent.
Some guy is working on a technology not unlike David Janes' Blogosphere. While it's a lot cruder, insofar as it's not customizable yet, it's definitely worth watching, and I'm not just saying that because I was the 10th weblog added to the list of sites it tracks. (Andrew Sullivan was 11th!)
Incidentally, David, if you're reading this--and you will be, eventually--please note that for the purposes of your "geographical location" Blogtrack list, The Ambler lives near Victoria, B.C., not "Vancover". And there's also no such place as "Vancover". Unless you have a van, and you cover it up at night to protect the wicked-ass Frodo Baggins fresco your cousin painted on the side.
Charles Dodgson accuses me of inattention bordering on foolishness for my characterization of blogospheric agitation against Trent Lott. Fair cop, guv: I should have been clearer in saying I meant that Republican webloggers take the view that he's largely innocent. Democrats don't think he's innocent at all. (Democrats, on the whole, don't think any Republican is innocent of anything.) There has been a lot of newly retreaded evidence brought forward against Lott since those same GOP-friendly webloggers pushed the story to the forefront in the first place. The evidence maybe does count, if you think the point is to get to what Lott really really feels, deep deep down inside, about black people. And maybe it is!--I can't say I wouldn't feel that way if I were black, certainly. On the other hand, nobody thinks his gaffe is going to have any effect in practice but to intensify Republican kowtowing to the black congressional caucus and black community "leadership". I'm following the story more casually than I should if I'm going to talk about it, certainly, but isn't some of this evidence the same stuff that resides in the closet of the Dixiecrats still in the Democratic Party, like Robert Byrd and Zell Miller?
Basically Lott's mistake was to remind us of his individual past; but I'm not defending the man--he shouldn't have reminded us. Since the American South controls American politics, I don't think it's exactly unfair that southern politicians should have to pay a special price for coming out ahead in their historic Faustian bargain.
Are you being served?
Luke Ford has an interesting interview with Canadian-born features and media writer Catherine Seipp. Counting student papers she's got something like a quarter-century in journalism, and apparently she has not once been sued. A remarkable track record, that. So many people will file a claim just to give you a red ass. Maybe it's easier in the United States, I don't know--certainly libel law is constructed fairly well in Canada, granting that it ought to exist. These days in Canada you have to worry a lot more about the human-rights commission than defamation law, and contempt of court was always a much bigger concern than defamation when I was doing hard news. You only have to piss off one judge, maybe by violating a publication ban you don't know about or haven't decoded properly, and you're under the microscope for the next year. Our in-house libel seminar many years ago was basically "Get the story right", and then we had about a half hour on the ins and outs of contempt. It's a much trickier thing.
I can report that I've only been served with papers once in seven or eight years. Wasn't really my fault, either. There's a young lawyer here in my city whose main specialty is personal-injury but who agreed to do pro bono work for a provincial group lobbying to end tax-funded abortions. He turned up on the evening news one night, sitting in a public meeting between the pro-life group and a government policy committee. The next day, when he arrived at the plush offices of his P-I firm Ambulance & Chaser LLP, he got called into the war room of the senior partner, Mr. Chaser. Mr. Chaser was very, very upset with our friend, though he wouldn't come out and say why. (Didn't have to.) Young Lawyer was ordered to clean out his desk and begone.
Young Lawyer had, of course, anticipated all this and prepared a soft landing for himself; today he has his own practice, and by all accounts is doing very well. At the time, my editor asked me to tap out a tiny little 300-word story on the curiously-timed firing. Now, of course, all I could really report was the very suggestive chronology; since Ambulance & Chaser was denying that Young Lawyer's extracurrical activities had anything to do with his sacking, I had no solid evidence to connect the dots--and, anyway, how did I know he hadn't molested a secretary or embezzled the coffee money? (A private partnership is certainly allowed to decide when an associate's political activities jeopardize the image of the firm--but Ambulance & Chaser wasn't admitting for a moment that that was its rationale.) So it required only a modicum of care to avoid defamation and let the reader draw his own conclusions.
What happened was--what happened was the headline and the cutline. After the story left my hands, somebody else was stuck with the problem of how to boil my flat, careful, non-torqued account into an attractive two- or three-word hed (this was a one-column item) and a five-, maybe six-word photo caption. They had to do this, mind you, with a printer standing around in a shop up the street, waiting for the page. So the hed, as heds do, ended up being something slightly less careful--I forget what, exactly. "FIRED FOR FAITH?" or some such. Same deal with the caption. And so when Ambulance & Chaser decided to sue, as law firms will, they blitzed everybody possible with the statement of claim, as law firms will. This included me, even though I had nothing to do with the actual offending components of the story. (Also, I'm so pro-choice I have no big problem with people eating fetus casserole, if that's their bag.)
So far, that's the only time I've been sued. And since our story, as such, wasn't actually making any kind of positive claim of unethical behaviour, it was an entirely painless matter for us to run the clarification Messrs. Ambulance & Chaser wanted.
Incidentally, I think the law of libel should be eliminated, and could be eliminated without any ill effect on journalism or society generally. When libel cases make court, they become either trials of the truth of a newspaper or magazine story by a judicial standard--which is obviously unsuitable--or alchemical calculations of the amount of "malice" with which an untruth was printed. The premise of libel is that a man is the legal owner of his reputation, yet when you put the premise so baldly, it is obviously absurd; you don't own your reputation legally or morally--it is something outside of you, in the minds of others, by definition. Asking the law to act to preserve a man's reputation is almost exactly like asking the law acting to preserve a good public opinion of his wife's looks.
It is rare indeed for libel prosecutions to unquestionably advance the cause of truth, though I'm sure there are counterexamples (and I can think of at least one, myself, where the plaintiff really was defamed and really did have little or no choice). Libel claims are never, ever made by anybody who is not already rich, and generally they are a great deal richer than the publications they are coming after. Any other tort or crime that operated this way would attract unwelcome scrutiny pretty quickly, don't you think?
Good works of the war machine
I'm reading a lot of American comment on the Canadians who are going to Iraq to serve as "human shields" for Saddam. Such bitterness. Look, people, just because we've found a better way to get rid of our middle-class hippie wannabes than giving them Rhodes Scholarships doesn't mean you need to be all jealous. But it's OK! Keep foaming at the mouth, you'll only encourage them. If current trends continue, fully 24% of Vancouver's scum quotient will have decamped to Baghdad by the time the war starts.
Whoa, they're like, shooting us with bombs and stuff! Don't they know Saddam is just trying to build social justice?
I know! It's like they don't even read IndyMedia, man!
Strike three...thousand, two hundred and seventy-four
I watched the delayed local broadcast of the Al Gore Saturday Night Live last night. It's a bit depressing: Wayne Gretzky is officially no longer the gold standard for immobile, stiff hosts. Gore missed another opportunity to bring out the witty, improvisational, clever Al Gore we're always hearing about: apparently he got confused reaching into the closet, again, and pulled out the affectless, monotone, frankly frightening Al Gore. That guy just has the worst luck.
Bear and eagle
You know, I remember seeing Soviet Life and Pravda, from time to time, as a teenager... all they made me do was pity the communists. Seventy years to refine the tone of their propaganda, and the poor bastards never did get it right. Soviet Life was precisely meant to find its way into the hands of intelligent young people in the West, but what ever made them believe that we'd get excited about hydroelectric facilities and indistinguishable folk-dancing troupes? They simply didn't have a clue. When the Chernobyl plant went kablooie in April 1986 I knew all about the place because I'd just read about it in the school library. One might well ask why Soviet Life was in the school library to begin with. In retrospect, there was certainly Communist influence somewhere in the echelons of the school system; I only wish I could reconstruct for you the monumental heaps of nonsense we were taught about Red China. Endless babble about how it was a society based on "cooperation, not competition"; nothing, not one word, about mass murder or famine. (I can forgive Jan Wong her Red Guard past if she was subjected to one-half the propaganda effort. But I became an anticommunist the first time I heard the words From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need.)
Anyway, as everybody knows, Pravda has now been transformed into a sort of cheeky Slavophil online news sheet... I keep waiting for them to hire a proper English-speaking web editor, but in vain. There is something almost touching about the bad prose in which stories like this are told. Imagine living the sort of life that earns you a tomb like this...
The scourge of God
Think being a journalist is all tea and junkets? The Ambler has an extraordinary tale of home invasion and e-mail abuse. His oppressor will be a familiar type, I think, to those in the trade. Don't miss.
The Lott-ery in Babylon
I was under the impression that it wasn't going to be absolutely mandatory to write about Trent Lott. I'd have loved not to. But it is hard, you see, if you happen to have an established audience milling about, to not speak up on an issue that nobody seems to get quite right--not exactly.
This is of course a bizarrely arrogant statement, even by my standards. But the one thing everyone seems to agree on, in the Lott case, is that only their own position is the right one. Well, I'm disavowing that. I don't know what the "right" position is, and the last one I read always seems to be the "right" one, for a few moments. And I'm not entirely sure that they're not, in fact, all right, since almost nobody seems to be coming out and saying "America should return to old-time racial segregation." Even the extreme conservatives who believe that the federal imposition of civil-rights laws on the South was more bad than good never make a personal plea for race segregation. The number of people defending that extreme position is, as a practical matter, nil; and even Trent Lott's enemies don't believe he is one of those people.
In that light, is there not something nasty and ill-considered, bordering on the manic, about the blogosphere's collective demand for Trent Lott's head? The argument against him generally takes the form "I know he's not a racist; I know he didn't mean it; but he's got to go anyway, because his comments are going to be used against him by the Democrats." Isn't this tantamount to accepting your political enemy's standard of judgment in such matters? And if you accept such a standard, how can you defend someone worth the defending, when the time comes? What happens when a good politician, someone whose fortunes are intimately connected to the real fate of the country, has a brainfart at somebody's 100th birthday party?
But on the other hand, Lott really is not worth the defending. Steve Sailer compares the anti-Lott fever to the Anita Hill affair.
Let me try to make this clear to everybody on the right: You aren't winning any Anti-Racist Brownie Points for leading this witch burning. You are just making it easier for them to come after you the next time you slip up in some utterly frivolous social occasion.
He's right about the "witch-burning" part, because this is a case where everyone acknowledges Lott to be basically innocent, yet wants him punished anyway. On the other hand, "we"--"we" as in the "you" Steve is addressing--are not all the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. In some positions of political power, gross stupidity is correctly deemed a capital crime. And there's a problem with the Anita Hill comparison, the problem being that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court today. Thomas found defenders, enough defenders to win a costly victory in the immediate fight; by and large, this is because Thomas was worth the defending. Haven't you seen lots of politicians who seemed to be protected by a layer of "Teflon" because they were basically perceived to be trustworthy? Well, Lott doesn't have the Teflon, although he does seem to use it as a hair product.
Michelle Malkin comes close to the heart of the matter when she points out that allowing Lott to continue in the Senate leadership is going to cost the Republicans real ground on race, ground that real Republicans really don't want to lose. Unless you believe that the purpose of the Republican Party is to advance the interests of Trent Lott, why would you want to do the Democrats the favour of not getting rid of him? The Democrat credited in some circles with "owning" the Lott story is openly praying for the Republicans to keep him:
What I think most Republicans understand is that a lot of Democrats would actually prefer Lott stay as Majority Leader. They'd like him to get battered and be wounded politically--and that's pretty much already taken care of. But they'd really prefer he stay in place. Because as long as he's Senate Majority Leader, politically speaking, he's the gift that just keeps on giving.
So what's the gain involved in keeping Lott and extending this aid and comfort to the Democratic Party? (Of course, the "battering and wounding" was aid and comfort too: Josh Marshall is essentially snickering at pro-Republican bloggers here for picking up a story congressional Democrats were happy to let lie.) We're not talking about a presidential candidate here, we're talking about a functionary. The gain, I suppose, is that if you relent, you end up skidding down a slippery slope: where are you going to get a Senate majority leader who hasn't said something stupid and regrettable in the requisite twenty, thirty years of politics? What are you going to do, elect Jesus?
At some point you do have to draw the line and stand up to sans-culottism. I return again to the point that while there seems to be no compelling reason to defend Lott qua Lott, there is no call for much of the hysteria now in circulation. A good Exhibit A: on Friday, Andrew Sullivan disavowed any hint of a Stalinist attitude in the Lott affair:
He asks us to forgive him. That is not the issue. He says he's not a racist: "I'm not about to resign for an accusation for something I'm not." Again, not the issue. I do not know and cannot know what Lott believes in his heart.
He's right about that--but just the day before, Sullivan had approvingly quoted a reader's sentiment:
Trent's reputation has probably been known for some time. But nothing sustained has ever happened, even though quite a few people have probably known very well that one of the more powerful Senators was a segregationist in his heart.
Hmmm, so are heart X-rays possible or not? Seems to depend on the day, or maybe the weather. For Exhibit B I'll pick on Howard Owens, who will appreciate the traffic even if he doesn't like the piss-take. Howard manfully says that we must be prepared to forgive people whose views were outrun by history, and who did their best to keep up. But in his final judgment on Lott he says this:
...the people of the United States, the vast majority, have said, "We want racism eradicated from our society." Trent Lott has violated that social compact.
Eradicated from our society? I trust that most Americans are not one bit prepared to advocate the eradication of any particular mental attitude, however objectionable; I am sure they know that the means to such an end would be unpleasant indeed. (Ovens? The Ludovico technique? 24-hour surveillance in private homes?) This seven-word statement is simply insane, and I cannot believe for a moment that Howard means it. But he's able to say it in that form, without being contradicted, so powerful is the American neurosis about race. It's created a climate where nuance is impossible.
And that neurosis is really what this whole Trent Lott thing is all about; he's just a victim--one, again, who is almost universally acknowledged to be fundamentally innocent. But if he's a victim, he's a victim who should have known better, like the kid who bikes into a pedestrian crosswalk without pausing for traffic. SPLAT.
Ringing the canine changes
Obscure one-liner of the day: "Dogs are not cynical, except etymologically." It's brought to you by John Derbyshire, who has played the animal card that sits in every columnist's trick deck, awaiting his time of need. Meet Boris, the hound of the Derbyshires.
Boris is getting old now, though you'd never know it from the enthusiasm he still displays for his daily walk. The vet tells us there are cataracts in both eyes, so that Boris will soon be blind. We comfort ourselves by telling each other that vision doesn't matter much to a dog; but it's hard now to avoid occasional thoughts about life without Boris, two or three or four years from now. Rosie [Mrs. D.] is angry about this, given to raging against the heavens in the style of King Lear. Why, she asks, do stupid, useless, affectless animals like parrots, crocodiles, tortoises and even some fish live for a hundred years or more, while man's best friend gets only a decade and a half? Who thought that up? Where's the sense in it?
Can an atheist play this game? We're stuck with the same families our whole lives, and we mate for life, or are supposed to. The short lifespans of our animal pals are cruel, but there is definitely something to be said for the pleasure of having the acquaintance of many pets in one lifetime. If your family were to get a dog when you were born, and it lived the usual span or a little longer, you would have one for your childhood; one for your adolescence and your twenties; one for your prime (which might well by the first dog for your own children); one for middle age; at and 60 or thereabouts, one for the beginnings of senescence. Different pets for the different ages of man, you see. There is something satisfying about this idea; only the inevitable partings seem rather much to bear.
Hey, isn't that Germaine Greer?
We have good reasons to settle for the usually circulated image, an idealized version of the one solidly authenticated amateur portrait. For all that it is idealized (the original, by her sister, is simply a botch), it captures her tremendous intelligence and doesn't retreat from hinting at sadness.
There is another alternative afloat, again very amateurish. Perhaps it would be best if we could live with her sister's other attempt at rendering her, one in which her face is demurely averted from an adoring posterity. But if you can't help wondering, this brief Internet guide to Jane Austen portraiture is entertaining.
Apropos of cross-burning: there is truth in the argument that, for historical reasons, it is a form of speech which implicitly contains a threat of violence within it. But if we're going to do this form of historical analysis to justify prior restraint on certain utterances, it behooves us to recall that the fiery cross was co-opted from the Highland Scots by the Klan and other dodgy nightrider groups. It was the traditional signal for a clan--not Klan--gathering. Some Virginian or other may, at some point, wish to restore this symbol to its more benign meaning. The Canadian artist ManWoman, for instance, has long attempted to do exactly this with the swastika:
Think of the most sacred thing in your life, think of the most precious thing and put the swastika into that place. Put the swastika into your heart. Put the swastika on your altar. Put the swastika on the image you use to represent God, love, peace, or the cosmos. Put the swastika on the thing that makes you happy. You will begin to see what the swastika has meant to humans over this entire planet for all of our human history. For these places are exactly the places it occupied for thousands of years until the Second World War, when it fell victim to a chronic infection.
ManWoman has gone so far as to have pretty much his entire body covered with swastika tatts. He's famous enough here to get away with it, though. When we see him we don't freak out anymore, we just go, "Hey, that's ManWoman. Crazy name, crazy guy."
To get back to the cross-burning issue; if you are going to ban a specific symbol or idea or "meme", even with the best of intentions, you must either make it a permanent, singular exception to the First Amendment, or allow it to become a pretext for other erosions of the First Amendment. In the first instance, unanswerable questions arise: why only one exception, and why that one? In the second instance, the Amendment simply loses all force. I don't think the Supreme Court can allow Virginia's ban to stand, as powerful as the reasons for it are.
Apparently Koba the Dread hasn't sunk in. When Martin Amis challenged popular perceptions of Nazism and Communism with his little book--pointing out that, of the two, the ideology with vastly more victims is the one recalled with ill-disguised fondness and endless excuses--he was laughed off by some and told "Well, we already knew that" by others. Christopher Hitchens, in his charming, rumpled way, seriously put forward the proposition (or seemed to) that Vorkuta and Butyrka are names with as much resonance, at least among the cultural elite, as Auschwitz and Belsen. (They're brands of vodka, right?)
Meanwhile red nostalgia proceeds on its merry way: exempli gratia, "Imaginary Friends", Nora Ephron's new musical comedy about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. Admittedly some chips have appeared on Hellman's bust in the American pantheon, but then again, it hasn't quite been tossed out, either. Journalists do us the occasional favour of mentioning that she was a Stalinist, and not an especially shy one. McCarthy was, by contrast (a contrast often inflated into diametrical opposition), a Trotskyite; hand in hand with Hanoi Jane, she was America's biggest journalistic booster for Ho Chi Minh in the late sixties, which would seem to give her quite a few "re-educated deviationists", drowned boat people, and flame-broiled Montagnards to answer for. Jean-Louis Margolin pegs the civilian death toll from Vietnamese Communism, not counting the war or the still-disputed South Vietnamese "bloodbath" that caused an international stir in 1979, at roughly one million in The Black Book of Communism. Of course you can't make an omelet, etc., etc.
Now if you were doing a musical about Leni Riefenstahl, do you suppose you could get away with taking a "'taint no big thing" approach toward her Nazi ties, in either the libretto or in a review? The aforelinked Times review makes one tangential mention of Communism, referring to Joseph McCarthy's "red-baiting" and thus preserving that man's reputation as History's Greatest Monster. Nora Ephron's attitude to her subjects, as best one can tell, is that they were simply fabulously bitchy intellectuals, brilliant pre-post-feminist starfuckers who did America credit and provided a great passing show with their teevee feud. Such fun. And those dresses!
To be fair, the show is set in hell. It's a singularly attractive hell, though--one in which les girls are allowed cigarettes. Residents of Mike Bloomberg's New York City may come out of the theatre wondering where they can come by a road map.
Is she the honourary patroness of the Bikini Team?
OK, OK, she's not technically part of the prize, she's helping giving it out. She's Princess Madeleine of Sweden, 20-year-old third child of King Carl Gustaf. That's right, all this and a princess too. She's also a noted equestrienne, so all you girls out there who dreamed of being a princess and having a pony when you were five--know that this woman stole your life.
Newsroom? We were looking for the bathroom
Smartest... protesters... ever.
A crowd of people angry about the Chicago Defender's coverage of a fatal police shooting over the weekend stormed the paper's South Side offices Tuesday and roughed up at least two newsroom employees.
The grafs are from David Heinzmann writing in the Chicago Tribune. Let that sink in for a moment: the protesters invaded a newsroom and became angry when someone tried to take their picture. I guess some folks don't get out much. (Link via Romenesko.)
This tears it--weblogging is officially unkewl
There, I've finally filed all my Report copy and I can start goofing off here again. For future reference, when I disappear for 36 hours at a time, you can always console yourself with Paul Martin's new weblog. Is this shit for real?--the link comes from Bourque but the "whois" lookup is singularly unenlightening. Certainly whoever's writing these entries has captured Martin's soggy position on Kyoto perfectly. "We're going to implement it, but not at the expense of any one region or sector: therefore Albertans should like the Liberal Party all the better." If you say so, Uncle Junior. Good luck tying yourself in a knot trying to figure out how you're going to impose limits on carbon emissions without hurting the damn carbon industry.
Webloggers everywhere (who may not know that Martin is all but certain to be Canada's next Prime Minister) will enjoy PM's dorky explanation of why he's starting a "blog". Wonder who the ghostwriter is...?
Hi there! It's 3:41 a.m., do you know where your children, pets, and perishables are? You're wondering, no doubt, where I've been. Spent the whole day working yesterday, trying to get ahead of the rapidly ending editorial schedule for once. But I failed to build enough sleep into my elaborate timetable, so I ended up nodding out for five or six hours and changing the mathematical sign of my margin for error. Now I'm looking very much like being the scruffy scofflaw of the editorial department again. I feel like the underachieving child who just can't make the school bus no matter how carefully he lays out his school clothes the previous day.
Billy has chronic tardiness disorder--they call it "CTD" now. We've been told a Ritalin enema may help...
It probably sounds like an inappropriate moment to pause and do a weblog entry, but I've always believed in pausing to smell the roses in the eye of the hurricane, and that's barely even a mixed metaphor in my case. When there's a crisis, I prefer to defy my own instinct to panic, and pause, instead, to savour my terrible existential freedom. Ultimately there is nothing in this life, with the possible exception of delivering a human organ packed in ice, that can't be set down for ten minutes for a moment of human interaction, of sweetness, of Zen stillness, of reflection, of the cultivated loafing that grows the soul like a flower. Yeah, light a cigarette. Take a bracing draught of cold Coca-Cola. Put on a Beatles record. The difference between being 100 minutes late with your copy and 110 isn't going to change the outcome of World War VI by any means. And even if it does, what difference does it really make whether the Mormon robots or the genetically enhanced Scientologist chimpanzees win, eh?
Back to work, then. I'll be in touch later, I promise. My web host informs me that the site will be out for fifteen minutes sometime Sunday afternoon while they change a "core router", whatever sort of thing that might be; make a note on your calendars.
The industry of human unhappiness
Is one of Canada's political parties really called "The Alliance?" That is fuckin' sweet!
I'm going to take this as tacit support for Allan Rock's candidacy in the Liberal leadership. He comes by the surname honestly, as most Canadians know--he hung out with John and Yoko back when he was humble student politician "Al Rock". Too bad the gun-registering Minister of Injustice didn't pursue that whole Bagism thing instead of joining the Liberals.
The tongues of men and of angels
My apologies for slowing down on the weblogging, although frankly I cannot imagine anyone really minding. The fortnightly deadline crunch at the Report has begun. If you've been following along very carefully you know this means my weblogging output may decline between now and Thursday morning, or it may increase dramatically as I cast about for items (and raid other weblogs remorselessly) to round out my column.
For those who take the magazine, the Up Front in the December 30 edition should be very good. I did some solid reporting this time and there are two good long items in there. The rest of you lazy sods will have to wait five or six weeks to read them online.
Jim Henley, who holds with George Washington that the United States should avoid foreign entanglements, describes the growing anti-Islamist activism in Iran as "another triumph for non-interventionism". Triumphalism is doubtless premature until there's... you know, a triumph of some sort; until, that is, the mullahs are actually got rid of. But Jim's raising a question which should make warhawks uneasy. Why are they marching in the streets of Tehran, and not Baghdad? The Iraqi opposition rightly sees no sense in hazarding lives and fortunes needlessly, what with the U.S. perched on the doorstep of deposing Saddam. Unfortunately the war machine seems to be having trouble getting off the doorstep. Have the years of post-Gulf War U.S. policy in the region done anything but keep Saddam in power? Are they keeping him in power now, when a "Vietnamization" of the Iraqi struggle might do the trick at no cost in American blood and treasure? These are questions worth asking.
Canadian weblogger David Janes has introduced a new tool which shows you, at a glance, the latest content on the weblogs in a blogroll of your choice. That's not a very good capsule explanation. You'll have to go play with the thing itself; its purpose will be obvious. You can even start with my own blogroll.
I'm ashamed to admit that Janes showed me this long-secret project months ago and I didn't understand it. I went to look at the URL he sent me (by carrier pigeon, for maximum secrecy), and whether because the thing wasn't working or my brain wasn't, its exact function wasn't clear to me. It seems like a potentially useful thing. I don't especially like that so many of the weblogs on my roll are "hidden" in the multi-frame display: why should that be? And if they're truly "hidden" shouldn't there be a way to "reveal" them? There doesn't seem to be one. But it's still a rough beta and the ingenuity is very impressive. Especially nice is that the code seems to recognize separate entries on my crude site, which is hand-built and uses no MT or CSS or XML or anything else that sounds like a model of Ford sedan. (Unless Ford is working on a car called the Notepad.)
A German girl has been recognized by Guinness as having the world's longest tongue. This seems like the perfect occasion to promote a weblog belonging to the probable Canadian titleholder, my friend Sarah Kelly. She probably wouldn't like me telling you, but she bit her tongue practically in half when she was a toddler and the doctor didn't quite reattach it completely on the bottom, so it's a very long tongue indeed (hers, I mean). I'm afraid I have no photos though. Have I embarrassed her enough yet, do you think?
Keep your running-dog crab alfredo, capitalist lackeys
The Berkman Center's report on Internet filtering in China is ready to be viewed. Here's a list of sites you can't look at in Red China. Most of these make some sort of sense... the Chinese, given their history, are understandably jumpy about foreign religious influences, and there's no surprise in the commies blocking U.S. military information and news, or external sites devoted to national minorities within China.
But what's the problem with Red Lobster, eh? Are Fiesta Lobster Rolls a threat to Chinese unity? Will the People's Republic be undermined by scampi? Enquiring minds want to know.
Open the pod bay doors, dammit
Gotta love that Google Zeitgeist. OK, well, yeah, you also have to be terrified that we've basically created an organism smart enough to rule the universe, but the GooZeit is still pretty fun. Do you think the people who came up with the name "Google" knew that they would essentially be running the world within a few years, and they deliberately gave their creation a cutesy, frankly imbecilic name so we wouldn't despise and fear them? The typical instinct would be to create a menacing, ahistorical brand that made you think of a gory metal maw gnawing live babies by the cord. Like "Omnix" or "Info-stopheles" or "Lycos". Instead they called it Google. Google!
Hey, I Googled you the other day!
Jeez, and I didn't even get a dinner out of it?
Maybe the emergence of this verb "Googling" isn't such a good thing--it sounds like a word you'd use to describe some proscribed sexual-harassment behaviour. Googling is not cute, it's a hate crime, sir. Anyway, the Google Zeitgeist never fails to inform, because it can tip you off about--well, all right: foreign totty, mostly. Q: Hey, the Germans seem interested in somebody named Michelle Hunziker suddenly, who's she? A: A naked girl. Q: And who's the Vanessa Demouy the French are all worked up about? A: Pretty much another naked girl. The Italians, mystifyingly, seem more interested in Pinocchio than in naked girls.
Note that "David Beckham" is the top-gaining query worldwide this week. Sounds like everybody wants to hear about the venomous and unfounded Internet rumour that Posh and Becks' legal heavies have almost managed to efface entirely from the world.
Stephen Harper, "moralist"
Reader Lloyd Marshall writes in about Michael Bliss's endorsement of the Canadian Alliance, and my own.
Sorry, Colby lad, but if the Alliance ever did (by some black miracle) attain majority you would find yourself almost instantly longing for the good old days of JC. Stephen has a good superficial appearance but if you listen to him carefully you will realize he's just another tiresome moralist--the party is riddled with them. This is why they will never gain the confidence of eastern Canada.
I'd never say any such thing, Lloyd, old sock. Abstention is an important right, one I've exercised myself. I recommend it quite strongly to those who see no suitable alternative to the Liberals.
Unfortunately, you appear to have a habit of hearing people say imaginary things. Stephen Harper has discussed abortion, and here is exactly what he said, in an interview with a pro-life magazine (the one your correspondent, a pro-choicer, works for) no less:
HARPER: I've been very clear in this campaign--I don't believe the party should have a position on abortion or that the leader should lead an agenda on abortion. I don't believe an Alliance government should sponsor legislation on abortion or a referendum on abortion. Even in a conservative party there are going to be wide differences of opinion on a question like that.
This is the Stone Age "moralist" you're talking about? Somebody who basically says "Fuhgeddaboutit" to pro-lifers in the pages of the Report? Er... which one of us was supposedly not "listening carefully"?
[Note: the 'Q' in the blockquoted discussion above is none other than The Ambler, Kevin Michael Grace.]
Money R Us, slight return
To me the Christmas retail figures are like the box office gross receipts reported weekly for movies--they provide a useful datum about my fellow citizens' behavior. But they're much more relevant, since retail is a more important sector of the economy than entertainment.
Only to retailers, amigo, only to retailers. And my whole point was that we seem to be absorbing their view of Christmas as a specifically macroeconomic festival. Even if we do so in the form of harmless jokes, we're accepting the underlying premise. Do you think there aren't other businesses who struggle to survive through the Christmas season? I just had to shoo away a Diabetes Association telemarketer because my budget is tied up in consumer goodies for my family. Well, all right, I shoo away charitable telemarketers on principle anyway, but I'm sure they're going through a pretty dry spell even amongst the normally open-handed.
Using the supposed innocuousness of box-office statistics as a simile here is a very bad choice, too. The attention paid to those statistics has skewed audience and cinema behaviour, in obvious ways; it's helped squeeze the art out of Hollywood. Everything stands or falls on the opening-weekend gross now, partly because the number-one movie gets such a huge marketing boost from the Sunday stats. That, in turn, has changed the ways movies are made and marketed, privileging spectacle above staying power.
In case nobody's noticed, the most successful movies at the box office used to not necessarily have explosions in them. The top-grossing movie of 1967 was The Graduate; 1968's was Funny Girl; 1969's was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Figure that could happen now? There are a lot of reasons it can't, but the fact that a large portion of the moviegoing audience predicates its behaviour on the box-office league tables is one, and not a small one.
Beware the naked Tarzan robot
I prefer to try to fill the function of a "thinker" rather than a "linker", as we say in the "blogosphere", but I'm gonna steal one from BoingBoing. It's an effervescent review of the Turkish version of Star Trek. I like the picture of Turkish Spock, he looks like a badass. A man of action.
Really I just want to get in on the ground floor here so that a year from now, when everybody's buying each other DVDs of Turkish Star Trek for Christmas 2003, I can be all "Yawn! That's so last year! All the real hip people are watching bootleg North Korean cartoons now."
Follow your Bliss
Historian Michael Bliss's Monday NatPost philippic on Canadian politics is terrific.
If you want to see a real change of government in Canada in your lifetime, you're going to have to screw up your courage, swallow your reservations and vote for the Alliance in the next election. If you're not ready to do that, then you might as well stop gobbling and grumbling as the Liberals carve up you, your family and your country. You are getting and will get the government you deserve.
This is not a man who urges an Alliance vote happily; in the past he's rarely missed a chance to bash its leadership and its organization. But he respects Stephen Harper, and I guess it's finally gotten through that there is only one choice on the menu. Since the situation is clarifying so rapidly, I can forgive being lectured for my "foolishness" along with other "Canadian voters". Still, you wish he'd mention that 3,276,929 of us voted the right way last time, and some of us have even done it two or three times in a row.
William Shakespeare, anno 2002
Good friend, for Jesu's sake forbear
The immortality I sought
But of all fates for my remains
Oracle of Bako?
If you've messed around with the Oracle of Bacon, the idea is familiar. The code finds shortest-possible chains of teammates between major league baseball players. For example, you can ask it how many generations it takes to get from Walter Johnson to Randy Johnson. Turns out it takes five. The Big Train played with Ossie Bleuge, who played with Mickey Vernon, who played with Harmon Killebrew, who played with Graig Nettles... who rode the bench for the '88 Expos (pinch-hitting for Randy at least once). There are plenty of other five-step paths between these two players: you don't have to go backwards through Nettles, you can go through Steve Trout or Goose Gossage. Want to go from Christy Mathewson to Greg Maddux? Six steps. Ty Cobb to Rickey Henderson? Five steps (Rickey has the advantage of having played with Tommy John and Phil Niekro).
You can use the Oracle to do other things: find common teammates between two roughly contemporary players, for example. How many guys played with both Mantle and Mays? Norm Siebern, Sal "The Barber" Maglie, Don Larsen, Bill Monbouquette, Dale Long, Billy Gardner... longtime Yankee reliever Steve Hamilton played with them both and with Elgin Baylor, on the Minneapolis Lakers. See, you're smarter already! Switch over to Duke Snider and hit "refresh" a few times and you find out that Larsen pitched in front of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. Which maybe you knew, but I didn't. All that and a World Series perfect game too...
There are some other new features at BBRef, and the 2002 stats are up, so go surf around and be sure to sponsor a page.
The national singularity
Floyd McWilliams says that Alberta is welcome in the American Union, on one minor condition. Oh, but why would we want to leave Confederation? Haven't you heard that Canada is morally superior to the United States?
Dear, dear Dickie Gwyn. In all the land there is no better personification of Toronto's unctuous superciliousness; if he did not exist we'd practically have to invent him. Only in the country's largest-circulation daily, the Voice of the Hub, would you find someone saying this with a presumably straight face:
But a fair number of Canadians do feel morally superior to Americans. ...for Canadians to feel this way, even if wholly unjustified, is a sign of national self-confidence. It makes us unique in the world.
Yes, you read that right. Richard Gwyn, high-paid columnist, professional intellectual, believes that of all the world's two hundred-and-some countries, only Canada looks down its nose, morally, at the United States.
Well, it's a newspaper, and this is most certainly news to me.
What's good for Toys R Us...
How is it that Christmas has become an essentially economic festival? I'm puzzled by this, by the universal acceptance of the principle that there is a macroeconomic moral virtue in Christmas, that we are somehow helping by going out and spending thousands of dollars in malls every year. Keynes once said "Even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist", and he was so right; we know this because nearly everyone is now in thrall to him, or to a base version of his notion that a dollar spent eight times is really eight dollars. People run up fantastic credit-card debts and excuse it with the thought that the money wasn't really meant to stay with them; it wants to be free, zooming along unfettered from pocket to pocket in a sort of notional moneyspace, a fiscal aether. But debt is debt: no one points out to them that if you're using a credit card you never had the money in the first place. You're creating money by using a credit card, in a way, but of course you'll have less over the next year, by the amount of your purchase and then some. I guess this is something we all have to re-learn every year.
I don't care to argue that it's "wasteful" for us to buy decorations, Christmas trees, candles, lights, all the things Scrooge would inveigh against. If it comes to that, any spending that goes beyond rent and a daily bowl of oatmeal is a waste: these trinkets and fripperies give pleasure, to some people at any rate. But what does concern me is the inherent, unaccounted economic loss involved in exchanging gifts. However you slice it, there's a kind of erosion of marginal utility involved there. Imagine A and B have a thousand dollars apiece to spend. If A and B were to spend the money on themselves, they'd make the theoretical maximal use of it; but if they spend it on one another, A and B are going to make "mistakes", some deliberate (you don't generally pay a friend's rent arrears at Christmastime even if that's what he needs most), some unintentional (A might buy B a bottle of wine when B is a recovering alcoholic).
Now, in exchange for this we get the pleasure of giving, and of signifying our affections, and of occasionally being surprised. (You can do these things any time of year, of course: presents are a good deal more surprising and pleasant, in my experience, when they come at an unexpected time.) But if the holiday activities are going to be justified on economic grounds, if we're going to walk around with a specifically macroeconomic rationale in our heads, then shouldn't we think about the problem of gift exchange, too?
What I'm really asking is, how come we only ever look at this from the retailer's point of view? We agonize over the amount of money spent over the weekend of American Thanksgiving, waiting for the figures like bettors watching a horse race. It is now an axiom that if we collectively decided to spend 5% less on Christmas gifts than we did last year, it would be a disaster. Why? Why couldn't that be a rational collective decision? Would it be so bad if we kept the money for ourselves? Would it be a negative thing if there weren't an outbreak of personal bankruptcies in January and February one of these years? Why must we all be personally committed to the retailer's view that Christmas spending must grow faster than inflation every year from now until the Last Judgment?
I mean, I don't want to sound like some Buy Nothing Day guy, but we're chasing meaningless statistics here. This is a form of social insanity--not Christmas itself, but the idea that the "economy" consists of this one particular group of retailers, and stands or falls on their fate. Lest I be accused of being Scrooge-ish, let me rephrase this way: our Christmas-shopping decisions should be determined entirely by our sentiments, and not at all by naive Keynesianism.
Break it down
Actually, there is one British weblog of supreme genius, that being I Hate Music. "Tanya Headon" hates all music, or pretends to for comic purposes, and while this may strike you as an untenable proposition, it seems damned hard to argue with her about almost any individual case. She certainly has Elastica's number. And Kraftwerk's. And--God help me, this gets my vote for funniest single weblog entry ever--Stereolab's.
I'm having trouble finding a proper photo of the new Miss World from Turkey. You know how it is, you get curious about something like this and then it becomes the most important thing in the universe for about twenty minutes. I guess it's self-evident what I mean by "proper", isn't it: I've already seen her face, thanks very much. A very nice face it is too. She certainly seems to have that Turkish monobrow issue licked.
Let's face it, though: under the circumstances, the competition was a gimme for Turkey. How many other Muslim countries even sent contestants? Before the competition there was near-unanimity on the identity of the hottest entrant: Miss Colombia, Natalia Peralta. (That page contains Chinese character coding, but you can just hit "Cancel" at the download prompt and go straight to the eye candy.) I think I broke something just looking at those photos. It is common at beauty pageants for the #1 hottie to finish #2 when the dust settles, and that's how things panned out this year.
Oh, look, there's a page for Miss Turkey too. Very nice girl-next-door vibe, but Colombia still got robbed. Hey, it's Colombia, I imagine they're pretty used to robbery.
[UPDATE, December 9: A correspondent who wishes to remain nameless says the Chinese pages are making his computer hang and recommends a couple of wire service shots of the top three finishers (#1, #2) receiving ceremonial accolades while, alas, more or less fully clothed.]
Hits are hard to find
The oft-mangled page containing links to my print journalism has been freshened up a bit: newer stories are closer to the top, and for the moment the links do work. I call it the "Greatest Hits" page, but there's certainly some stuff there I don't like and wouldn't recommend reading.
Why did you link to it then, jerkface? Honesty? Perversity? I can't really say.
If you just want to dip into my printed oeuvre, a real good place to start would be with this story on maple bats in baseball's major leagues. The switch from ash to maple is an underreported story, and I stopped counting the things in this article that nobody else has pointed out. It's got colour to spare and it benefits from a devoted amateur's knowledge of baseball. I mean, Jesus Christ, Barry Bonds' bats are made (partly) by mentally disabled adults who ship milled maple cylinders to a reconditioned brothel. Am I nuts or is that a natural for the Sports Illustrated cover?
Meeting of the minds
Steve Sailer and Jerry Pournelle went to see The Two Towers together: oddly, Sailer is the professional reviewer but Pournelle is the one who provides a review [link will decay on Monday or thereabouts]. If you don't care for all the LOTR madness, and frankly I don't (I don't see why the movie would be any worse or better than Fellowship of the Ring) just scroll down to read about Jerry's problems with Word 2002 and a shareware database product he purchased... common complaints. Why are the help docs for Microsoft programs so poor? I guess there's no profit in forgoing a generation of upgrades and working on making Mr. Happy Smug Paperclip actually answer my damn questions (yes, I still use Word 2000).
Hee-haw and Merry Christmas
The newest edition of the Report magazine has the editorial collective's selections (compiled and doubtless tweaked by Jeremy Lott) for the top ten Christmas movies of all time. I was asked to pitch in with my choices, but I think I ignored Jeremy's e-mail completely. For me there is only one Christmas movie anyway.
Pure chance made It's a Wonderful Life an entrenched Christmas tradition: it was carelessly allowed to enter the public domain in 1974 and became a free Yuletide space-filler for everybody on the TV dial--until the greedheads at "Republic Pictures", so-called, asserted a highly dubious claim to continuing ownership of the audio track. NBC's single annual showing, which is a notable event precisely because the movie was part of the public heritage for so long, has become a reminder of our IP dementia. Not that there aren't other reminders hitting us in the face every single week.
But during that period when one couldn't get through the holiday season without seeing It's a Wonderful Life several times, what one discovered was that it held up beautifully. It is almost as if it were made to be shown again and again. I see new things in it every time I watch it. Did you ever notice that on Harry's prom night, as George is getting ready to go off and have adventures, he sits at the dinner table and says "Boy oh boy oh boy--my last meal at the old Bailey boarding house." I must have seen the movie seven or eight times straight through without cluing into that--it's a hint at the alternate universe Clarence the angel is going to reveal to George later, the universe in which George's mother, having lost her husband and her one son, really does run a miserable, run-down boarding house.
And then much later, after Old Man Potter offers him a job, George goes home with his head still spinning with visions of a fat salary and asks his wife "Mary Hatch, why in the world did you ever marry a guy like me?" She says teasingly--it's a throwaway line--"To keep from being an old maid." The nightmare world of the film's second half keeps throwing shadows on its most idyllic moments of domesticity. And after all--it's the same world; the "real" Bedford Falls contains the seeds of Pottersville within it.
What a carefully made thing this movie is--it's like a garden cultivated with infinite love and attention. The charge of sentimentality sometimes levelled at it has been, I think, dispelled often enough. Sometimes I feel frustrated that the thing's a goddamn Christmas movie, to be honest with you. Everybody talks about Bert and Ernie, the comic-relief cop and cab driver who become war heroes; not much attention is paid to poor Gloria Grahame, whose town-bike character would curl a dead man's toes. "George, don't you ever get tired of just reading about things?" Nothing very sentimental about that. And it's certainly not the kind of thing you'll find in A Christmas Carol.
The origins of a world war
Robert Stinnett, an author who has argued that the executive branch of the U.S. government had foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, is trying to call attention to the NSA's peremptory removal from the National Archives of previously unclassified documents relating to the issue. That's a story to keep an eye on, perhaps. Have you read my article written last year about a new and intriguing piece of ammunition for Pearl Harbor revisionists?
Beyond the reach of public policy
It's a real festival of boohooism in Alberta today as a family prepares to bury two-year-old Cole Harder. Cole's divorced dad, Grant, drove Cole out to a remote oil lease near Camrose on Sunday. Grant blew Cole's head off with a shotgun, then did himself in. Sadly, such stories are not especially unfamiliar.
To the government, Grant Harder's action clearly indicates that every single non-custodial parent in the province should be screened for mental illness before being allowed to visit his own child.
That's what Children's Services Minister Iris Evans is saying, right? I don't think I've misread her words in that story. Granted, they're not easy to parse:
One thing we are looking at is that before any unsupervised access takes place, some form of mandatory assessment or screening for mental health issues or depression could take place, and should take place, in order to have the best possible information on the non-custodial parent who would assume that right to visit with the child in that private situation.
Can you believe some of these parents "assume" they have a right to visit with their own children?
They may also assume they have the right to be deemed innocent until proven guilty. Not if bereaved mother Naomi Manuel has anything to say about it! She's upset because she had obtained a restraining order against her husband and was pursuing criminal charges of assault against him at the time of the murder. He hadn't been tried yet, but she believes he should have been denied access anyway:
All criminal charges laid, whether they have gone to trial or not, should be taken seriously and recognized by everyone in the justice system. All custody access rights should be denied immediately when criminal charges are pending.
And this would have saved Cole's life...how, exactly? Is Mom saying she would rather have had her murderous ex-husband come after her and the child together? It hardly needs pointing out, I would have thought, that if Grant Harder felt depressed enough to kill about limited legal sanctions against his rights as a father, intensifying the sanctions was hardly going to be an appropriate remedy. Genuinely suicidal people don't respond to incentives.
How come, when desperate fathers who feel outnumbered by the legal system kill their children and themselves, or their wives and themselves, the answers to the problem all seem to involve creating more of those fathers?
How come the Sun gives such extensive attention to the opinion of a woman revoltingly thoughtless enough to have had children with a murderer?
We are to think of the children, build public policy so as to benefit the children, apparently; Cole Harder's death is supposed to plunge us into soul-searching so profound that Iris Evans can essentially espouse therapeutic fascism without batting an eye. I have an idea to benefit the children: don't have them with a crazy person. Thanks to the twin miracles of birth control and legal abortion, no child need be unplanned. Every child deserves two sane parents! Spread the word!
Augustans vs. the Empire
For some subconscious reason I haven't worked out, I've been trying to avoid writing about the New York Times/Augusta National flap. Why is that? Has it just been mined too heavily? Or is it just too obvious that the Times has gone insane? Kaus is the man to read on this subject, not only because he is deliberately "flooding the zone" but because he diagnosed Howell Raines' affliction months ago; he's a Southern liberal pathetically trying to replay the civil rights crusades of the past. To call it juvenile and desperate is much too kind. It's a symptom of an actual pathology, a sickness, in American political life.
That said, I must add that it's the kind of sickness that manifests as a neurosis in the U.S. and a psychosis here in Canada. Up here Augusta National's refusal to admit millionairesses as members would, simply, be illegal under provincial human-rights statutes. The matter would not get as far as being discussed; the golf club would have yielded the principle long before the first news story was written.
The real embarrassment, of course, is for those who claim there is No Such Thing As Liberal Media Bias. Could the Times campaign against Augusta National be a tacit conspiracy to derail Al Gore's renomination campaign? Just as Gore is trying to make headlines claiming that conservatives dominate the U.S. media, this story--in which Pulitzer-winning columnists at the Paper of Record are getting their work rammed onto the spike for arguing in favour of old-fashioned American freedom of association--rears its head. You've got to wonder if they're deliberately trying to make him look like a fool.
In a weird way I can understand what Raines is trying to do. He presumably believes, as I do, that there is no sense in newspapers contorting themselves into a stance of serene evenhandedness. This is something they've only recently felt the necessity to do, and with alternative news sources sparking up on all sides, American newspapers are perhaps best advised to return to their older tradition of populist partisanship. (When they had a monopoly on the raw feed of news, and broadcast bandwidth was limited, they had to appear to function as a public trust; but now we all have modems and cable TV.) But, of course, you have to be a blinkered New York liberal to believe that this Augusta crusade is going to work on a "populist" level. As American newspapers reacquire the old instincts, they will perhaps see that they have to give their own columnists back some freedom of action if they expect to reclaim it for themselves.
Roundup before retiring
Well, I finally finished reading the Internet tonight. And I still say the Dune hexalogy was harder.
I'm been thinking of a feature for this site called "Novelists' Assignment Desk". Every day, reading the newspaper, I think to myself "There's a novel in that... there's a novel in that... boy, is there ever a novel in that..." Today's installment would be the Berlin art student whose suicide was mistaken for performance art. Actually, my friends and I occasionally swap round weird German news items with the catchphrase subject line "German, All Too German", and this story is perfect for that.
Reader Jonathan Good sends this excerpt from an interview with Andy Richter is the latest issue of Newsweek (Dec. 9):
NW: What do you watch?
Great minds, etc.
In an e-mail, Steven Den Beste professes himself flattered by my previous entry about his weblog. He has more detail on his engineering approach to political, social, and technical issues in this November post.
The 2 Blowhards have a hilarious item on a new survey of American art critics conducted at Columbia University. Total respondents: 169. Percentage who described themselves as "politically conservative": 3. T-H-R-E-E. (And no, "libertarian" wasn't an option.)
I highly recommend the PDF file of raw data available here. Some factlets:
Percentage of American art critics who say their reviews are "mostly positive": 61%
It's a curious coincidence that anyone's criticism should be equally positive and negative if each work is being approached on its own merits, isn't it? Of course, if the "critics" are mere shills the policy makes good sense.
Percentage of American art critics who are unfamiliar with American Artist, the magazine of American representational painting: 49%
How American art critics voted in the 2000 presidential election:
I pause to provide the standard disclaimer that there is No Such Thing As Liberal Media Bias. Goodnight...
Generals and majors
In a $15-$16 billion budget, which is what we [the Canadian Department of National Defence] really need, those costs would not need to be questioned. Although I know he doesn't mean to, Mackenzie's wasteful costs could be taken the other way, as evidence that there's still some room to cut and trim back. That would be wrong: right now I'd argue the defence department is the most fiscally responsible government department in Canadian history. We're not the ones blowing $1 billion on a useless firearms registry.
Emphasis mine. A loud "touché" is warranted on the gun-registry comment, to be sure. But DND "fiscally responsible"? Right now the Canadian Forces has 50,000 active members and, as Flit reminds us often, cannot field an additional force of any description for overseas duty. Existing field commitments in foreign theatres account for 2,503 of those 50,000 personnel. Are we supposed to think this a particularly excellent show?
Well, maybe it is. But Bruce would be the first insider I've heard from who does not think that the CF--leaving aside civilian DND employees!--are overburdened with legal apparatchiks, social engineers, and spin doctors, all of whose numbers have been swelling as the actual complement of Canadian fighting men and women declines. As for armchair-bound brass, there are still 50 or 60 general and flag officers in the CF, are there not? I know they've been paring back, but that still leaves the top ranks a pretty cheap currency in a combat force with only a handful of working regiments and boats. Even for the (too few) dollars it does receive, DND does a pretty poor impression of a lean, mean fighting machine.
Child stars, eh?
Oh dear. It appears one of the Degrassi kids has grown up and bludgeoned someone to death. This ought to be a field day for those who argued that that show was a bad influence on young minds. Degrassi: Incubator of MURDER? Sheeoot, that'll probably be my magazine's damn cover story next cycle.
When you grow up in Canada you don't really know how other people are reacting to these distinctively Canadian cultural objects and then it always surprises you to find they've embraced them. I think I've said it before, but it still freaks me out and, to be honest, annoys me slightly when I meet Americans who are into SCTV. No, man, that's our thing. What are you talking about, you love SCTV? What the hell...? (And I have this doltish response even I know SCTV won pretty much all the comedy Emmys, every year, when it was on the air.)
But of course SCTV was a show of literally unsurpassed merit; I'm just surprised at the passion of the foreign audience because I overestimate how much of the joy of the show is in its Canadian rhythms, its shabby Canadian splendor. The Degrassi thing is a little different. But man, people love that show. I only watched it when I was a little older and I grew to appreciate the over-the-top plotlines and the Italianate neorealism of it... I watched it the way I suspect British people watch Coronation Street, kind of feeling cuddly and superior all at once. The earnestness of it was part of the joke. You could feel the arrogant adult producers behind the scenes nodding to each other and going "Let's really try to connect with young people with this episode." But at the same time the show had kind of a sloppy dignity to it because it was populated with real teenagers, growing up in these unpredictable ways before our eyes.
There was something so Canadian about the Degrassi series--I guess they did try pretty hard to root it geographically. But then you grow up and you find these German and Japanese people who are, like, fanatical cultists of the show. It's a good thing they don't live here because Joey Jeremiah is doing these healthy-cooking PSAs ("You have no idea what you can do with celery!") and he looks, well, not my dad's age--maybe like one of my younger uncles or something. He's just a pro trying to make the rent and you're glad he's working and all... but on the other hand, that's just it--he's a pro. I think it would be a real psychic trauma for some of these foreign fans to see the current incarnation, hawking bean sprouts 45 seconds at a time. Also, the hat's gone. It got auctioned off on eBay for charity years ago.
The Captain crosses over
This is probably something everybody knew already--probably even I knew it, and forgot--but did you realize Steven Den Beste voted for Al Gore in 2000? He's glad now that Bush won, of course. I suppose this knowledge will be a useful corrective the next time I'm vicariously enjoying one of his shitkickings of wet Europeans, Mac stalwarts, or some other lower form of life. "Yeah, he's right... but he voted for Gore."
It's enormously creditable that he owns up to it, of course. It's really a sign of the hubris and candour that propels the engineer, as a distinct human type... he's able to bury opponents in blizzards of verbiage, unafraid that one of them will shoot back "Woooo, that's some pretty big talk for a guy who voted for the Sierra Club's ventriloquist dummy." Because he's already got his answer ready: that was a different problem situation, engineering-wise. Everybody's got embarrassments in their track record. All that counts is how you handle them.
And of course he'd be quite right about that. People are attracted to Den Beste's writing just because he puts very little stock, ostensibly, in saving face or playing to the crowd. There's a flatness to his rhetoric, a self-conscious rejection of demagoguery--what some would criticize, probably, as a mechanistic coldness. Every interlocutor, friend or foe, is greeted in more or less the same tone. "Hmmm, well, let's analyze what you have to say, shall we?" It's quite admirable, really, and most people couldn't carry it off without the façade melting. It takes all kinds to make a "blogosphere" but I think Steven's presence is somehow especially useful and important.
To whom it may concern
Lately a lot of people have been asking me whether ColbyCosh.com's forthcoming line of branded merchandise is going to be available in time for the holidays. I regret to announce that this will not be possible. Toluene was accidentally substituted for flame retardant in the ColbyCosh.com crewnecks, and customers were said to find the picture of my face on the personal massager "disconcerting and unpleasant." I'm sure most of you already saw the 60 Minutes segment about the coffee mugs. Testing proceeds apace, however, and we're aiming for a very merry Christmas 2003. Watch this space.
Give me Bodoni or give me death
I've lightened the new winter blogroll a bit, since some readers were finding the contrast with the black type insufficient for ease of reading. Never let it be said that ColbyCosh.com ignored and vilified the public more than absolutely necessary.
If you were having trouble before, it might be because you have let Times New Roman stand as your default browser font. Times is serviceable, say experts in such matters, but it is less than ideal for reading a lot of text on a computer screen. And many of you may not know you can change your default browser font. In newer versions of Internet Explorer, you just choose "Internet Options" under the "Tools" menu, then press the "Fonts" button. I'm partial to Georgia, Trebuchet, and poor maligned Arial myself. What's that you say?--Arial is just a deformed clone of Helvetica? Fine, I'll just sell a kidney to buy the real thing from a goddamn type foundry.
Actually, the type snobs will already have moved beyond my praise for Arial and started composing indignant e-mails urging me to select a favourite typeface and impose it on my readers by means of my HTML code. They can have my reply in advance.
Dear Type Snob:
Speaking of problem-plagued weblogs, Kimberly Swygert of No. 2 Pencil wants readers to know that she's not dead: she's just having mystifying troubles with Blogger and Homestead, and cannot update for the moment. For those who don't know, Kim is a practicing psychometrician who writes about education and standardized testing. When Blogger and her web host let her, that is! I'm posting this at the time marked below (duh), so if you're seeing it a few days later, you might go see if she's come back yet.
This night wounds time
One of the defining and dispiriting characteristics of current visual art is its love of appropriating existing objets and materials, re-stamping or re-branding or re-perspectivizing or deconstructing them or simply plunking them into aquaria and cashing one's cheque. (Dan Clowes called it "the old tampon-in-a-teacup trick".) It's sometimes noted of both the Surrealists and the Beats that they feel like dead ends, transitory moments in art; yet how very much of contemporary art is, in essence, collage or cut-up. You can't even be taken seriously as a straightforward painter now, it seems, unless you've mixed your acrylics with the vaginal mucus of a sheep or something.
This tendency is not one little bit good, but on a childlike level I've always appreciated Tom Phillips' Humument, which is now online in its entirety. Humument, Phillips' "treatment" of a forgotten Victorian novel, is beautiful, surprising, and pleasurable. For maximum enjoyment, exaggerated assessments of its importance should be ignored.
Bye bye billions
Americans who dream of a national gun registry will want to acquaint themselves with the costs it's imposed on the Peaceable Kingdom. Ours isn't a ballistic registry, mind you, it's the cheapo kind that uses whatever serial number or distinctive marking you can get off the weapon, if you can get one. Eastern Canadians who support the registry should pay attention, too, but alas, there are no known limits to their appetite for bad government...
Auditor-General Sheila Fraser took aim at the Liberal's billion-dollar federal gun registry Tuesday, citing it as a glaring example of the government's "inexcusable failure" to account for how it spends Canadians' tax dollars.
All this comes from Darren Yourk in the morning Globe. The one billion dollar figure, of course, is just government spending on the registry and the useless database that goes with it. It doesn't take into account the time wasted by citizens on the paperwork, or the effort put into evading compliance. Or the problems created by pulling a couple hundred policemen off the streets to run the whole show.
And for what? Is the registry reducing handgun killings in Toronto that you've noticed? "They shot out the porch light again, honey..." Even the old numbnut "If it saves even one life" argument doesn't wash with this abomination. What life? Whose life?
Will the Liberals apologize for squandering nine figures on a program that achieves nothing and criminalizes thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens?
When asked whether he would listen to [Joe] Clark's suggestion that "heads should roll" in Justice Canada, Mr. Cauchon replied that "if you look at the report, there's no wrongdoing."
A billion dollars gone, and "no wrongdoing": let that phrase reverberate for a while the next time you're tempted to vote Liberal.
The sighing skipper
I was thinking yesterday about Craig MacTavish, head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. I don't actually talk to anyone about hockey, you know--you guys are it. My actual friends and co-workers don't really give a crap about the game (and there have been looong stretches over the past decade where I didn't either). Strange but true. So I have to vent here, once in a while. I know nobody's reading.
As I was saying, then: I was just thinking about Craig MacTavish, head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. It may be fallacious to claim that MacTavish seems vaguely haunted, with unexpressed emotions constantly skittering around behind his sad eyes. If you know his story--killed a girl in a drunk-driving accident, served time, ruined his career, got picked up by the Oilers, came back to be team captain and one of the sterling two-way forwards in the game--well, the conclusion that there is something Munchian about MacT seems too... obvious.
But on the other hand, look at the guy's face, and listen to him in interviews. He speaks very deliberately and seriously, like a man who's had a whole bunch of anger-management classes. Every time some reporter asks him a real stupid question ("Hey, coach, how does it feel to lose to Calgary?") you can feel him pause and gather up overtaxed reserves of strength and patience. You can hear him suck in breath with difficulty, like St. Sebastian pinned to the tree.
After the game on Saturday, CBC had MacT on the "After Hours" show with Scott Russell and Kelly Hrudey. And they basically bushwhacked him. He sat down in the chair and they unveiled a surprise telephone guest: Marc Crawford, now coach of the Vancouver Canucks, calling in from Florida. This, surely, was a dirty trick worthy of Donald Segretti himself. MacTavish hates Crawford, as I'm sure most everyone in the league does. Crawford is the epitome of classlessness, a red-faced bull-necked Great Santini martinet who inevitably starts screaming and blaming referees and making excuses and trashing guys like Scotty Bowman in the newspaper when his team faces adversity. Great coach, but unless he's on your side, you hate him. If you don't, he'll find a way to make you.
So there's MacTavish, sitting there with his thumb up his butt while Russell and Hrudey ask Crawford questions about the Canucks' winning streak. Why? Why invite a guest on your show and then spend six minutes interviewing somebody else? I was watching MacTavish while this was going on. He looked confused at first, then wary. He started to shift in his chair. And for just a moment, I thought, "Holy crap, look at his eyes: he's going to blow his stack." But he didn't. MacTavish isn't a shouter, as a coach; he's a simmerer. Since snap character judgments are absolutely my style, I'll say I know in my heart he's ten times the man a posturing whiny creep like Marc Crawford is.
MacTavish was always an emotional leader, as a player; but there's the red-ass Billy Martin type of emotional leader, and then there's the quiet guy you just follow into hell without thinking about it. He was, is the second type. But what's curious about this... the point I really wanted to make, mostly to myself, is that MacTavish strikes me as a wonderful tactical coach, but I'd be hard-pressed to find signs that he is successful as a motivator.
What's the best thing about MacTavish as a coach? As best I can tell from an unprivileged vantage point (I'm forced to listen to many games on the radio), he's good at diagramming set plays--which is surprising, given the kind of tough, straight-ahead player he was (MacT was the last guy to play in the NHL helmetless). Glen Sather never did much of the tactical stuff because he had improvisers like Gretzky and Coffey on the club; he didn't have to find ways for those guys to score. But what I notice about MacTavish is how often he calls a time-out with the team behind by a goal, and they go get it, with some weird cycling manoeuvre or unexpected pass or behind-the-net trickery. He's good at saving resources for key moments of the game, knowing just when a well-rested third line might outskate the other team. In the third period there's nobody else you'd rather have behind the bench.
But as a motivator, a handler of players, the record's mixed so far. Tom Poti gave up on him, Mike Grier never gave him 100% after he hurt his shoulder, guys like Anson Carter and Tommy Salo keep disappearing for weeks at a time. This year he proved unable to turn Jiri Dopita into an asset, and the talented youths are coming along slow. Dan Cleary, who doesn't have much to recommend him except a good offensive track record in the minors, just got his first goal of the season, and Ales Hemsky is scoreless despite showing flashes of jaw-dropping skill.
Obviously that's not the whole picture, but it's hard to credit the successes to MacTavish. Ryan Smyth plays with fire, but Ryan Smyth was born with fire. Mike Comrie's fighting his size to become an elite NHL goal-scorer, but he's been fighting his size since he was with the St. Albert Saints; Mike strikes me as a pretty self-contained fellow. (You don't make the NHL after growing up in a family with $300 million unless you have considerable inner resources.)
So it's questionable whether MacTavish has been entirely successful as a coach, with the team as inconsistent as it is. Still, I'm pretty comfortable with him behind the bench--more comfortable that I would be with some maniac or brute.
The missing link
You've probably noticed there's a new, stripped-down blogroll at left (in new winter colours which may need to be lightened a shade or two). I have five Australian weblogs there to just two from the UK. Yeah, there are a couple of UK weblogs I could, and probably will, add one day. (I told Blighty-betrothed Sasha that she can switch categories when she gets off the plane at Heathrow, no sooner.) But I suspect even a half-hearted search would turn up a half-dozen more Aussie weblogs of quality which might be added too.
And no sooner do I notice this that it occurs to me: I don't have any UK readers to speak of, either. My only noticeable helping of European traffic comes from somewhere east of the Greenwich meridian--I think I have one devoted, oft-returning German or Finnish reader, though I'm not really certain. But I still get plenty of traffic from Australia. Yes, I wrote a sycophantic and widely popularized piece about Australia (one that fine country's never yet given me cause to retract), that's part of it--but I also get more traffic from New Zealand than I do from the UK, and I swear to you this is the first time I've so much as mentioned New Zealand. (Incidentally, hi there, New Zealand! I try not to be one of those people who leaves you out when I'm talking broadly about the Anglosphere. I'm not really as careful about it as I ought to be, but rest assured you are cherished as--in the traditional locution of English monarchs--a right trusty and well-beloved cousin.)
My question is, where the heck is Britain's profile on this whole weblog scene? Why is Britain, to put it bluntly, AWOL? If I were going to make a list of the twenty most gifted newspaper and magazine columnists alive, at least ten would be British. The same is true with English-speaking novelists, I daresay. The British, at every class level, have a facility with language and irony that shames us colonials through and through; to take an obvious example, the number of British politicians who have written books, really sat down and written books which are sold under their own names, is twenty times the number of American ones. Easily.
Yet any list of the twenty best weblogs would contain, at most, two or three UK sites. And Brits don't seem to read weblogs, either, or they don't read this one. Their newspapers haven't yet started to hum with signs of weblog influence. Weblogs there haven't begun to serve their great function, much in evidence in the U.S., of lifting undiscovered talents from anonymity. We all know now that Mickey Kaus, despite his niggardly output, is worth ten of any commentator we see on TV; we've all learned to put Lileks in the place of honour in American letters oafishly usurped by Garrison Keillor. Where are the analogous British figures? Are they congenitally afraid to shove themselves forward and self-promote a little, outside the rigid status structure of UK newspapering? Or is the UK just a whole lot better at giving these people plum jobs and piles of money to begin with? (This theory has its attractions: I note that Steyn was a superstar in England before anyone had heard of him in the U.S.)
This, here, is basically a new literary genre, and it strikes me as flabbergasting and outrageous that Britain should not utterly dominate a new literary genre. Have you all lost your bottle, then? I'm sure this topic has been discussed, in superb detail, on some fine British website I am not already aware of. If you have a URL do send it to the usual address.
Thank God for '70s technology
Bruce Rolston has a long and instructive entry on the SAMs fired at the Israeli passenger aircraft in Mombasa. I have nothing to add! I'm an idiot on this subject! Fascinating read, though.
Or maybe he just really likes Minnesota
Another Chretien item--couldn't resist this one. Here's a bit from today's Montreal Gazette story on the fallout from the Romanow health-policy doorstop (the byline's Elizabeth Thompson's):
Chretien also made it clear reforming health care will be a priority during his remaining months in office.
Stop laughing! It's possible the prime minister really will be forced to use Canadian hospitals when he can no longer commandeer military aircraft to take his family to private clinics in the United States.
Up early? Don Martin has a very tasty morsel above the fold on the front of this morning's Calgary Herald. The great and good Ottawa Citizen ran with it too. Bourque doesn't have it yet, and Canada.com hasn't posted it. Have a taste:
Canada's leading investment dealers have secretly warned the prime minister of a powerful Wall Street backlash against Canada's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.
There's more at your local newsstand. The IDA, as Martin writes, represents all of Canada's major banks and securities dealers. It appears these silly men believe they can murder Kyoto ratification in its cradle by playing ball with Chretien. Well, they're institutions, and it's foolish to expect them to act any other way: if we elected Hitler Prime Minister they'd start filling his desks with their memos and confidential reports within six hours or so. They act at every turn to preserve the Liberal hegemony in this country, and now they find themselves desperately trying to placate a mad tyrant with nothing to lose. Good luck with that, guys. It's times like this I almost look forward to Chretien ramming Kyoto down the throat of Parliament.
Important toilet video news
A short unsigned item from the November 29 Adnews:
Montreal-based Zoom Media has modified some of its "Classic" silver-framed billboards to include a 15" screen. The boards, which measure 16" by 20", are installed in the washrooms of restaurants, bars, fitness clubs, university campuses, medical clinics and golf courses nationally. The new screens include an infra-red motion detector that, when triggered, activates a video advertisement which can be up to two minutes in length. The billboards in Quebec were modified earlier this fall. Rogers AT&T Wireless is the first advertiser to use the modified boards in Toronto, running two 30-second ads from its Christmas elves holiday advertising campaign created by MacLaren McCann of Toronto. Claude Breault, director of communications for Zoom Media, said the screens will be added to all its billboards of this size in Canada.
That, I guess, would include the already-tiresome ad where the elves are perched on top of Santa's capsized sleigh, which has fallen in the drink somehow, and they're trying to convince the Coast Guard to come out and help them. (I don't know what the other spot is like.) I really enjoy Adnews because it gives me the heads-up on bizarro marketing stuff like this. Unfortunately it's mostly pretty hard to turn into a story pitch...
The New Urbanist critic James Howard Kunstler has a website that is an exemplar of its kind--it's got paintings, fiction, interviews, all of it good. He's just posted an interesting account of receiving hip replacement surgery at the relatively young age of 53. It's particularly interesting that he pursued just about every conceivable "alternative" remedy for his chronic pain before throwing up his hands and getting the Terminator hip installed. By my count he tried a year-long anti-arthritic diet, rolfing, two chiropractors, a "chiropractor/kinesiologist", another diet, some sort of chi manipulatrix, and acupuncture.
Needless to say, none offered more than transitory relief. And in the end Kunstler had to get filleted like a chub anyhow. But it's asking a lot of most people, where their health is concerned, to ask that they stand on principle against charlatanry. In this instance Smith's invisible hand steers people toward a sort of placebo industry which actually relies (for versimilitude) on its practitioners to be either naive or actively dishonest.
Hope springs eternal
(Link via The Ambler) Those of us who were deluded into buying DVD players on the premise that SCTV would one day be released in the format have had their hopes unexpectedly revived. The "rumours" that the show was going to be issued in fall 2002 (the New York Daily News reported this as flat fact) have been revised by show producer Andrew Alexander to include a fall 2003 release date. The good news is that, according to Alexander, the delay has been caused by "massive rights clearances issues." This suggests they're going to try to keep the original music performed on the show by the many guests of the Fishin' Musician. (The Ambler adds that "Dave Thomas was always running music clips in sketches as well as having characters sing songs for which permission had not been granted... This is a big problem for many old TV shows. Enforcement was not always so Draconian." Just so. Another triumph for the emerging regime of IP brutalism.)
The missive, incredibly, comes in response to the SCTV on DVD online petition. Alexander encourages fans to "keep up the pressure" so if you haven't signed it, go do that.
The Berliner Gram-o-Phone.
Hey, neat! I found this 1902 advertisement from the Calgary Herald while I was straightening things up around the hard drive and on the site tonight. I can't remember particularly why I saved this ad. I'm sure I was going to construct a weblog entry around it, but I can't remember what my point was.
Probably it was something about "new media". That's what the Gram-o-Phone was in 1902--it was a much newer medium then, certainly, that this Magic Information Box you're using is now. How far backward they had to bend to reassure their customers! And no wonder, since they were competing with Edison, the original Intel of recorded music:
The Berliner Gram-o-Phone is the only talking machine made in Canada. A five year's written guarantee goes with each Gram-o-phone.
Since the name "talking machine" had come to be attached to the new device, the ad has to explain very carefully that it does more than just talk.
It sings Sentimental, Popular, Sacred, or Comic Songs. It reproduces every Musical Instrument of a Full Band or Orchestra. It sings Duets, Trios, Quartetts, and Choruses. It sings Coon Songs, plays Cake Walks, plays selections from Grand [or] Comic Opera.
Get the picture? This baby can reproduce any kind of musical sound. (People today have analogous problems understanding that the computer is a universal machine.) And in case you thought our starchily categorized music was a new wrinkle, note the various kinds of music that stood in for Rap, Hip-Hop, House, and Punk a hundred years ago. You've got your Sousa marches, your Scots band tunes, church choir records, banjo solos, cornet solos, and a long list of plain old popular tunes. One might even call them the Top 40.
I don't know how well you can make out that "Songs" list at right. I expect complaints from the bifocalled shuffleboard set any minute. And no wonder! A few of these tunes have survived by one lucky chance or another ("My Old Kentucky Home", "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home"), but most are as dead as the dodo in the popular imagination. Can anyone out there still whistle "Rip Van Winkle Was a Lucky Man" or "A Picture Without a Frame"?
The myth of the peaceable kingdom, revisited, again
I'm really enjoying having a one-stop shop for Mark Steyn's stuff. Let the record show that Christmas came in November this year. Naturally I have ulterior motives for linking to his review of Bowling for Columbine [UPDATE, Dec. 2: link busted, column offline, "Christmas" over], but let me expand on this point:
Moore's thesis, such as it is, is that America's murder rate is the consequence not just of the country's love of guns but of deeper currents of paranoia and fear in the American psyche. To that end, he crosses the Michigan border into Ontario, where one Canadian after another tells him that they don't lock their doors. The level of guns per capita in Canada is similar to America but the murder rate is much, much lower. Ergo, it must be because Americans are living in fear while Canadians are much more socially progressive.
Moore may be under a partly honest illusion about the cultural differences between the two countries. (These days, ascribing honesty to Moore is difficult, but it is our collective obligation where possible.) He comes from Michigan, and if you drive though the charred urban hell of Detroit and pass into slightly less Stygian Windsor, you're going to form one view based on your experiences. But it's a long border, and as Steyn suggests, there are plenty of places to cross. You could set a spell in Winnipeg, murder capital of Canada, and then drive south to the Dakotas, see who locks what doors where. You could hang out in Vancouver--dodging firefights amongst Indo-Canadian gangs, avoiding death-dealing "rice rockets" on the roads, staying clear of bat-wielding maniacs in Stanley Park, maybe even going to Robert Pickton's farm to watch them pick the bits of sixty hookers out of the pigshit--and then take a jaunt down to Seattle and Tacoma for comparison. I hear Mercer Island's lovely this time of year.
I do know one thing: I lock my doors, even when I'm at home. It's easy for me, of course: any unannounced visitor is ipso facto a cop, a landlord, a door-to-door solicitor, or some meth-crazed ex-boxer asking for cab fare to go "visit his daughter in the hospital" (long story). My friends have my phone number, they'll call first. Anybody else is pretty much welcome to break their neck on the steps.